When County Mayor Mike Ragsdale proposed building four new elementary schools last spring, his proposal came as a surprise to members of the Knox County school board.
Under state law, the school board is responsible for determining how school funds are spent, but it hadnâ’t even been consulted on, let alone recommended, any of these school construction projects. Worse yet, Ragsdaleâ’s proposal flew in the face of a board determination to undertake a comprehensive rezoning of existing Knox County schools before coming to any conclusion on the need for new ones.
County assumption of responsibility for capital outlays that had been the school systemâ’s province started with $40 million for the new Hardin Valley High School, then extended to cover $15 million for a new Powell Middle School and another $15 million for upgrades to existing schools. If Ragsdale gets his way on the four proposed new elementary schools, their cost of about $15 million each would add another $60 million to the unattributed debt (Three of the new schools are actually replacements of antiquated Adrian Burnett, Carter, and New Hopewell; the fourth would be an added school out west.)
Control has really been the name of Ragsdaleâ’s game of one-upmanship. Dissatisfaction with what heâ"and many county commissionersâ"have deemed to be lax management of school construction projects on the part of the school board and its administrators have prompted pressures to put the more respected Public Building Authority in charge of them. By controlling the purse strings, Ragsdale was able to do so at a time when his purse was fairly full as a result of the $12 million in new revenues derived from a $30 increase in the countyâ’s wheel tax. Not one penny of the increase went to schools per se.
Plans for new elementary schools are a horse of a different color in that they represent an attempt to dictate what new schools get built rather than how they get built. Moreover, they come at a time when the countyâ’s coffers have been depleted to the point that Ragsdaleâ’s budget for this fiscal year resorted to drawing down rainy day funds to cover the debt service on a $57 million bond issue to fund a new sheriffâ’s pension plan. That debt service is recurring, but no new source of revenues is in sight to cover it in the years ahead, let alone the cost of any more new schools.
Most surprisingly, Ragsdale almost thumbed his nose at the results of an extensive assessment of school facilities needs on which his administration collaborated with school officials, the Metropolitan Planning Commission, and the PBA. The central finding of this Partnership for Education Facilities Assessment was that, â“The data indicates that there is not a systemwide capacity problem, but a geographical zoning issue. Due to funding constraints it may be necessary to focus on geographical zoning boundaries.â”
School board members uniformly dread having to undertake a system-wide rezoning process. But as board member Cindy Buttry puts it, â“If weâ’re going to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, weâ’ve simply got to deal with it.â”
It may well be that the massive rezonings required to balance enrollments with existing school capacities will produce a groundswell of protest sufficient to quash them and necessitate new schools to relieve overcrowding. It may also be that antiquated schools like Carter need to be replaced. But a well-conducted school board process of evaluating all options and prioritizing all needs is crucial to gaining public acceptance for capital outlays that will almost certainly require a tax increase.
Indeed, with County Commission in shambles and Ragsdaleâ’s political capital now in deficit, along with the countyâ’s fiscal condition, the school board may be the only governmental entity that has the credibility to rectify the situation, especially when a new superintendent comes on board to take the lead.
As high as sales taxes already are in Tennessee, an increase in the local option sales tax seems preferable to a property tax increase. One big reason is that state law requires that half of any such increase go to schools. Raising the Knox County rate by a quarter-cent (to 2Â½ cents) would yield about $20 million. The $10 million school share would be enough to permit assumption of the $6 million in debt service on the $70 million in unattributed school debt (thus restoring truthful school budgeting and rightful school responsibility) while leaving $4 million to support close to $50 million in new school construction. Shifting the $6 million would, in turn, free up enough county money to fill the budget hole created by the sheriffâ’s pension plan.
It may be Don Quixotish to think that voters would approve a sales tax increase in a required referendum. But if additional revenue is not forthcoming, capital outlays in Knox County for everything from schools and roads to storm-water abatement will soon grind to a halt. â" Joe Sullivan
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