editorial (2007-13)

Scoobie the Straw Boss

County Commission chairman is desperate to divert attention away from its legal and ethical challenges

Poverty in Black & White

Scoobie the Straw Boss

Scott "Scoobie" Moore's naked attempt to distract the public's eye from his role as chairman of the Knox County Commission throughout its appointment debacle, and the sand that's been raised over nepotism in county offices, would be a disgrace if the perpetrator were anyone else.

As it is, it's nearly impossible for Moore to disgrace himself further. Tossing out a proposal to study city-county government consolidation, however, is a sheaf of straw that's hollow to the core.

With his own family's government employment profile to contend with in the debate over nepotism, Moore seems to have gotten desperate to cast attention elsewhere. He's picked another contentious issue, one that always raises controversy and one with many proponents, despite the fact that it has lost four times in voter referenda dating back nearly 50 years and most recently a decade ago.

Of course city-county consolidation of government is a good idea. It would eliminate what's left of overlap and duplication. A single government could operate more efficiently and tax collections would be more equitable.

Most Knox County political leaders, including Mayor Bill Haslam of Knoxville and Mayor Mike Ragsdale of Knox County, favor it in concept. Those who don't like the idea are elected officials who might lose their seats on the gravy train and those who feel that all high government officials, including the chief law enforcement officer, should be elected rather than appointed.

The last three times metropolitan government was put to a vote, it was approved by city voters but not by voters in county precincts outside the city. There may have been several good reasons for that split--one being that county citizens who live outside the city enjoy the benefits of many city services without paying a dime for them. The city has been shucking off some of its government responsibilities, including public health, schools and libraries, since the first consolidation effort. Another reason the referenda failed in the county has been the power of the elected sheriff to thwart any attempt to limit the sheriff's duties to process-serving and court security, leaving law enforcement to a chief appointed by a mayor, even if the appointment were subject to Commission consent.

Frank Leuthhold, the commissioner brought back out of retirement to accept a Commission appointment regardless of the controversial circumstances, is one of the few commissioners with a complete understanding of the way local government works best. A member of the Charter Commission that drafted the government unification document that lost outside the city limits in 1996, Leuthhold took Moore's suggestion to heart to the extent that he suggested forming an exploratory committee to see whether the public might actually support a consolidation effort.

This time, though, it would be highly unlikely that city voters, who have just witnessed the County Commission's blatantly illegal backroom politicking over its appointments to fill the seats of term-limited officeholders, would cast their lot with countywide government. At least the city wouldn't accept a government controlled by the current Commission majority or led by a figure as shady and opportunistic as Moore.

Poverty in Black & White

That finding called for a study of the discipline issue by an organization outside the school system itself, and Mike Ragsdale, the county mayor, jumped into the fray by appointing a small but potent task force to look into it.

In its report to Ragsdale, the task force, chaired by former state Sen. Bud Gilbert, concluded that race was not as large a factor as poverty in school suspensions. That part of the report was based on research by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work that showed that socio-economic distinctions were a more relevant indicator of school suspension risk than was race.

That's good and bad. It may seem mostly good, in that it suggests that county school administrators aren't racists.

But the tough part to accept is that, despite its lengthy experience with diverse student populations, the system is lacking in its ability to deal with students from poor families, whether those families are black or white.

Ragsdale, who has taken an interest in public education that has not been characteristic of county leaders in the past, is suggesting that the school board follow through on his task force's suggestions that the school system come up with mandatory training for its educators in handling multiracial and multicultural student bodies; that parents be better informed by the system on student suspension practices and rights of appeal; and that the school board request and examine data on school discipline on a monthly basis in the future.

Such recommendations seem reasonable, but the handling of discipline problems in the schools is something the school board shouldn't have to be involved with. Professional educators should be expected to have the ability, the propensity and the good sense to mete out discipline fairly without extensive board oversight.