What is the sound of one eyebrow raising? For the answer, you should have been at the public release last Thursday of the comprehensive Knox County Schools audit. Because while the lengthy report by the Houston-based firm McConnell Jones Lanier and Murphy has its share of shake-'em-up recommendations and gentle finger-wagging, the overall effect is undeniably mild.
After months of wrangling between County Commission and the school board over who should do the audit, who should pay for it, and how broad it should be, the final result seemed anti-climactic. Commissioners who were hoping the study would give them ammunition to go after the system's administrative payroll didn't get much help. At the same time, MJLM proposed just enough reshuffling to make most school honchos a little uneasy. And, seen from the outside, that may be about right. Some of what the auditors said makes sense. As usual, the hard work will come in sorting out the useful from the expedient, and the policy from the politics.
One area the report singled out for vast improvement is construction planning and management. This is a pretty obvious one, since the school system recently dumped the Public Building Authority as its construction manager and Superintendent Charles Lindsey has yet to set up a new, in-house department to handle ongoing projects. In the public presentation, consultant Odysseus Lanier noted the school system did not have a comprehensive master plan for its capital program; he suggested administrators should be looking at 10-year demographic projections and figuring out how to renovate or build to meet future needs. (At that point, PBA chief Dale Smith—stationed in the back of the room—leaned forward to his colleague Vernon Patterson, who had been supervising school projects until recently, and whispered, "Does that sound familiar?" Patterson replied by merely rolling his eyes and saying, "Duuh!")
Since construction is the area that's caused the most tension and controversy between the board and County Commission over the past decade, Lindsey and the school board would be well advised to hire some good people and get their act together fast. Otherwise, without PBA to deflect blame to the next time something runs over budget or past its designated completion date, the board will soon find itself under the same old guns.
On the other hand, MJLM's suggestion that the school system could save significantly over the next 20 years by closing a half-dozen small elementary schools should be approached cautiously. For one thing, school officials dispute that some of the schools on MJLM's list are "under-used." "West View, for example, is crammed," school board member Paul Kelley says. "We've been asking for portables over there. They say it can be closed. Well, I don't know where those students are going."
Also, while bigger schools are more efficient in terms of per-pupil cost, there are other considerations. The smaller schools that closed during the 1990s—like Eastgate in East Knoxville or Brownlow in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood—did so at significant cost to the life of their local communities. And does anyone really think the education of 5-year-olds is best served by dropping them into a school with 800 to 1,000 students?
Likewise, the audit estimates its biggest cost savings (which, at $9 million over five years, still doesn't amount to much in an annual budget of nearly $400 million) from the elimination of "excess" secretaries and assistant principals. The benchmarks are apparently the recommended per-pupil numbers of administrators and support staff provided by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Those numbers may be worth exploring—are they recommended minimums, for example, or actual regional averages? But the school board will, and should, be reluctant to cut positions that actually interact with students every day. And even commissioners aren't likely to howl for blood from administrators who are in the school buildings (as opposed to bureaucrats squirreled away in Central Office).
On the other hand, commissioners are sure to pick up on the auditors' call for reorganization in the Andrew Johnson Building, especially their emphasis on the need for a new chief financial officer. The school system's finance and business operation, headed by former principal and coach Bob Thomas, has long been seen as a weak link. Thomas is a nice guy, but even school board members have known for a long while that his credentials to keep the books for such a complex operation are suspect. If Lindsey has been looking for the leverage to reassign Thomas, the report gives it to him. If he hasn't been looking for it, commissioners will probably demand it anyway.
Other recommendations deserve attention and evaluation. The need for a new compensation expert in the personnel department, for example, deserves consideration—especially in light of recent near-scandals involving employee insurance benefits. And the call to contract out for food services if that beleaguered department can't support itself by 2003 makes good sense.
It will be interesting to see how some commissioners' disappointment at the narrow scope of recommendations affects their votes later this month, when County Executive Tommy Schumpert is expected to present a proposal for MJLM to audit the rest of county government.
But what really seems clear from the school audit is that the biggest challenge for the school board and County Commission will continue to be working together to pay for and run the Knox County educational system. The first and strongest recommendation MJLM made was for the usually adversarial bodies to engage in "team-building" exercises in developing the school budget. This is news to no one, of course. But there's always the hope that hearing from an outside source will have some impact. With next year's budget talks just around the corner, it's hardly too early to start.
"You have to get the parties in the room and start the dialogue," Lanier said. Like Vernon Patterson would say, "Duuh!"