Smaller School-Budget Increase Passes County Commission Without New Taxes

"It's like an episode of Parks and Rec," a friend e-mailed halfway through the epic Knox County Commission meeting on Monday.

And indeed, the meeting could not had been more like the television show if it had tried. Support Our Schools sent Commission 500 apples before the meeting started. A member of the Tea Party gave Commission 10 lemons and told the 11 members to make lemonade. A man played a harmonica. Recently arrested Commissioner Jeff Ownby chewed gum for two hours straight. Commissioner Mike Brown encouraged spanking in the schools. (And we haven't even gotten to the communist-plot accusations.)

But at the end of the four-hour-plus meeting, everyone got a little bit of what they wanted: Knox County Schools got more money, and Mayor Tim Burchett had his budget adopted without a tax increase.

Both sides seemed somewhat pleased with the outcome of the compromise amendment put forth by Commissioner Mike Hammond that allows the schools to get a $7 million budget increase for next year. Commission voted for the increase 7 to 4, with Commissioners Ownby, Tony Norman, Dave Wright and R. Larry Smith opposed.

"It's an unprecedented step," says Knox County Board of Education Vice-Chair Indya Kincannon. "I'm pleased that we got the $7 million ... although I'm disappointed it's not as much as we asked for."

Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre issued the following statement: "I applaud our Board of Education and the County Commission for moving forward with an important financial step that will help accelerate our academic progress. This increase to our budget will allow us to invest in several critical educational initiatives, including: critical supports for teachers, interventions and enrichment for students, magnet and community schools, early literacy, and full-day kindergarten. I am pleased that this funding will allow us to enhance our efforts to improve student achievement and success."

A $3 million increase was already in Burchett's budget, and the remaining $4 million comes from the county and the school system's rainy-day funds and state funding. The money goes toward things like literacy programs and the community schools program, not the much talked-about iPads. The surplus-fund usage was a bit of a sticking point for Burchett, but not enough of one that he plans a veto to his own otherwise mostly untouched budget.

"I appreciate all Knox County citizens who spoke out on all sides of this issue, and I am glad Commission chose not to raise taxes in this economy," says Burchett. "Commission did, however, approve the use of one-time funds for recurring expenses, and that is something I wish had not happened. That vote has been cast, though, and now school administrators have all of the operating funds they said they needed to improve our students' performance. It is now time for them to do the work."

Hammond said the capital and technology requests put forth by the school system—the majority of the asked-for $35 million increase—need more study and that Commission should look at an increase in funding again next year. This sets up a potential year-long battle between advocates of increased funding for the school system and anti-tax adherents, and if Monday night was anything to go by, the fight will get even nastier.

More than 40 people spoke at the public forum that lasted more than two hours before Commission's scheduled meeting. A little more than half the speakers were in favor of increasing property taxes to fund the entire $35 million requested, but the majority of those speakers were school-system employees. Still, some county residents, including some without children, also spoke out.

Anne Barnett, who described herself as a newlywed in the middle of buying her first house, said she and her husband had no extra money but supported a property-tax increase. "We're poor. But I'm standing here saying I'm willing to pay more money in taxes. Why? Because my mom taught me, if you want nice things you have to pay for them," Barnett said.

Knoxville Chamber of Commerce CEO Mike Edwards said, "Public education in America is a diseased spleen," and said the increase in taxes would put Knox County at the forefront of educational reform.

"There is no perfect time for a tax increase, but leaders have to plan for tomorrow," said Board of Education member Karen Carson. "When was the last time you got a call from a citizen saying I want you to tax me more? How about a thousand calls?"

The public opposition to the tax increase didn't come across as quite as coherent as the other side, but that's what happens when you have speakers playing the harmonica or ranting about the Soviet school system. However, Commission's opposition to a tax increase came across loud and clear. Smith told the school system that if they wanted $35 million, they should find it in budget cuts. Norman called the central office staff "the society for the preservation of nepotism and cronyism in Knox County." And, yes, Brown called for a return to corporal punishment in the schools. "Then you'll have some better schools," Brown said.

So even if the school board spends a year talking about and explaining its need for more money, will Commission act any differently? Kincannon is hopeful.

"We having the coming year to get support, and maybe they'll be willing to work with our needs next year," Kincannon says.

She admits that part of the challenge for next year will be getting all the teachers in the school system on board—some this year felt that the central office was railroading a plan through that they had little input into.

"Like Commissioner Broyles said, once people opposed to the plan learned more about it, they were more likely to not oppose it or even became supporters," Kincannon says. "I think unfortunately our IT plan got oversimplified. It's not about iPads for every student but ... maintenance, routine replacement, infrastructure, and people—it includes hiring IT staff. ... It's for our teachers to have high-functioning computers."