Three big issues dominated Commission's four-hour meeting yesterday:
1. Resolution to "bill" the federal government for illegal immigrant education costs
2. Resolution to appropriate $60,000 to the Hamblen County School Board for a new "International School"
3. Resolution to have junkyards in Hamblen County put fences or trees around their property
1. Resolution to "bill" the federal government for illegal immigrant education costs.
This proposal from Commissioner Tom Lowe had been studied and worked on for months. Commissioners received a copy of the proposal over 10 days ago. Yesterday, Commissioner Ricky Bruce stated that he thought some of the figures on migrant population were wrong.
After much back-and-forth, the Commission decided that the resolution would be considered again and the school board would be asked again to provide information and data to be used in the resolution. (Commissioner Lowe had great difficulty getting figures from the local Board of Education, and the migrant population data that was used in the resolution came from the State of Tennessee Department of Education)
2. Resolution to appropriate $60,000 to the Hamblen County School Board for a new "International School"
After public comments from many people (most opposed to the school) and after extensive discussion and questions from commissioners, the vote was 8-6 to approve the $60,000 appropriation to the International School venture. The vote was no surprise.
The eight commissioners voting to help start a new school site at Walters State were: Dennis Alvis, Ricky Bruce, Maudie Briggs, Doyle Fullington, Donald Gray, Herbert Harville, Edwin Osborne, and Joe Spoone.
Opposing the funding of a new school site at Walters State were: Larry Baker, Guy Collins, Tom Lowe, Linda Noe, Nancy Phillips, and Bobby Reinhardt.
One individual who spoke against the International School brought out what he considered to be at a minimum "ethical" conflicts of interest involving three commissioners. This individual mentioned that Commissioner Ricky Bruce's sister (Paula Bruce Combs) is an assistant principal in the Hamblen County School System. He said she was selected as an assistant principal less than a year after her brother Ricky Bruce was elected to the Commission. (Since her appointment was in 2003, the current Director of Schools, Dale Lynch, is the one who appointed Commissioner Ricky Bruce's sister to the assistant principalship).
He added that Commissioner Herbert Harville's son Stan is a principal (non-tenured) at Witt and Harville's daughter-in-law is a teacher. Stan has tenure as a teacher, but he is not protected by tenure as a principal.
Finally, the speaker said that Commission Chair Joe Spoone has the most conflicts and closest family ties to the school system. He pointed out that Joe's brother, James Spoone, is a Hamblen County bus driver (non-tenured). Joe's sister, Carolyn Spoone Holt, is chairman of the Hamblen County School Board. Joe's wife, Charlene Spoone, is a technology assistant (non-tenured). Joe is covered by his wife's medical insurance with the Hamblen County School Board.
He mentioned that Joe used to be on the county's insurance plan but apparently decided to become a dependent on his wife's school insurance over a year ago. Most people consider the school insurance to be the Cadillac of insurance while the county insurance has been referred to as a Chevrolet. (Chevrolet owners don't get upset with the comparison. I'm certainly not knocking Chevrolets-- I drive a Chevy PU occasionally.)
The speaker said that the conflicts might or might not be considered as legally precluding these three from voting on school issues, but he wanted Bruce, Harville, and Spoone to consider the ethics of the situation. He asked that they consider recusing themselves from the vote and the discussion on the International School to avoid even the "appearance of impropriety."
You can see by the vote that Joe Spoone, who has the most conflicted situation, didn't think that his brother's employment by the school board, his sister's position as chair of the school board, his wife's employment by the school board, or his own medical insurance coverage under the school board plan creates an "ethical" problem or gives off even the "appearance of impropriety."
Because of the gentleman's concern about conflicts, ethics, and the appearance of impropriety, I raised a question about Joe voting on the International School issue. I hope that by simply raising the question, there is at least a greater awareness of the ethical issue here and the obvious appearance of impropriety.
Tennessee's conflict of interest statute is so limited that it is likely that there is no technical legal conflict. You just about have to pay yourself directly to have a legal conflict of interest.
"Ethical" and "appearance of impropriety" questions are more complex. I'm afraid that Tennessee (as all who have watched Tennessee Waltz corruption charges unfold across the state) has few and largely toothless ethics standards at this point in time. The "call" on the type of ethical questions that the gentleman raised is apparently left to the person with the conflict to decide.
Obviously, Commissioner Spoone may take the position that there is no "appearance of impropriety" and that he is not "ethically" conflicted by the fact that his wife is employed by the school board and his medical insurance is provided by the school board through his wife's plan, that his brother is employed by the school board, and that his sister is chairman of the school board.
I think that the gentleman yesterday who discussed these family and economic ties was actually telling commissioners that sometimes common sense tells you more about conflicts of interest than all the laws on the books. Sometimes common sense tells you that you have a personal conflict and that stepping aside is the right thing to do.
It is Tennessee's loose ethics laws that have precipitated the current ethical crisis in the state and that have prompted the renewed emphasis on ethics legislation at every level of government. Is there anyone, including Commissioner Joe Spoone, who can say with a straight face that his many close family and economic ties to the school board have no effect on his vote?
I'll get into more on the International School in later posts, but I do want to add something important now for all citizens and taxpayers to consider. The School System's ELL (English-Language Learners) student count resulted in state and local match BEP funding for 11.5 ELL teachers in the current 2005-2006 school year. The school system, however, employed only 8 ELL teachers for 2005-2006.
There will be, and has been, "spin" galore about the ELL teacher situation. As Commissioner Phillips pointed out yesterday, if the school system had followed the BEP funding guidelines in this area (11.5 teachers), we would only be 2.5 teachers short of the 14 that will be required for ELL students in 2006-2007 instead of being 6 short! Another item that the Board likes to "spin" is to say that the state/local BEP funding doesn't cover the full costs of these ELL teachers in Hamblen County.
Well, the fact is that the state provides 62.7% of the BEP funding for these teachers and Hamblen County provides the required BEP local funding match of 37.3%. The school system says that this level of state/local BEP funding doesn't cover its teacher and benefit costs. What is not mentioned is that Hamblen County provides additional funding over and above the required BEP local funding match of 37.3%. Hamblen County provides approximately $5 million dollars in additional funding above the required match and has done so for several years through maintenance of effort provisions. And on top of the $5 million provided above BEP local match requirements, Hamblen County also provides additional money to the schools every year through the payment of school construction debt on behalf of the school system---principal and interest payments that are paid from the county's debt service fund. (If you hear it said that the school system helps pay the school construction debt, that is correct but only to a small degree. The school system agreed years ago to contribute $500,000 of its BEP money to help in the payment of the huge school construction debt that was incurred by the county with the recently completed $35 million school building program--this $500,000, however, does not begin to cover the principal and interest costs that the county incurs and pays each year for school debt outside of the BEP and school budget.)
There will be a dozen different and carefully worded explanations for the current "crisis" and shortage of ELL teachers. Putting all this "spin" aside, the simple fact is that the school system shorted this program area for at least two years and has now put together a plan to start a brand new school for "newcomers" --a plan that will involve bussing 120 students from all over the county to and from a site at Walters State with loss of instructional time and ever-rising costs to the local taxpayers in future years.
3. Resolution to have junkyard owners put fences or trees around their property
This proposal that has been in the works for over six months seemed to be going along well until a few days before the commission meeting when several owners of junkyards asked to meet with Commissioner Nancy Phillips to express their concerns.
Junkyards in Hamblen County were "grandfathered" in when countywide zoning was enacted in the early 1990's. That means that junkyards in existence when zoning was first adopted can not be forced out of business (unless they cease operations for an extended period of time) even though they do not conform to the current zoning of their area.
County attorney Rusty Cantwell, at the request of several Hamblen County residents and several commissioners, researched what could be done to gradually require junkyard owners to put fences or trees around their property to help shield any unsightly piles of cars or junk on their property from public view. Coming out of committee, the proposal was to require owners to build a fence or plant trees as a screen around the junkyard--and allow them 3 years to do this.
Because of the discussion about changes, the commission did not take action yesterday. Yesterday's meeting was recessed, and the full commission will meet again on Monday, October 24, at 6:00 pm to iron out the details of the junkyard ordinance. Some suggestions made yesterday were to allow 5 years before a fence or trees must be planted and to only make the fencing and trees apply to junkyards fronting on county roads--with the idea that the state can be pushed to address the junkyards that have frontage on state roads.
Coming up soon...update on county vehicles (should be very interesting), audit information, and the long-awaited report on the headlines you've seen and those you haven't seen (but should have) in the Tribune.