Our Money. Our Children. Our Decisions.

June 17, 2010 at 11:37 pm 7 comments

I know there are a lot of Sumner County citizens and parents out there who honestly believe that we have a great public school system. In fact, I bet if I took a random sampling across the county, I’d be hard-pressed to find many who didn’t at least believe our public schools were above par. It’s natural to want to take pride in something that means so much to us. Many of us with school-aged children are also products of Sumner County’s public schools. But our sentimentality is allowing us to become complacent. Our schools are not great. Our schools are not above par. Our schools are under the leadership of a man who continues to take us further down the road of mediocrity. And we’re letting it all happen. You don’t have to take my word for it. I’ve written about our system’s failing TVAAS scores and what that means. Our schools cling to “high student achievement scores” but even those will paint a different picture when the 2010 Report Card comes out. You see, until this past year Tennessee was last in state standards, meaning that our TCAP and Gateway tests were the easiest tests of any in the nation. This past year, those standards were raised. Where we may have 95% proficient and advanced in a certain subject, it’s predicted that we will have less than 50% proficient and advanced. Oh, there’s going to be mayhem when that Report Card is published.

All that is a different subject in itself. I want you to see the perspective of an outsider. This video is from a recent North Central P16 council meeting (P16 councils are groups of educators, political officials and business leaders working together in a more systematic way to strengthen educational achievement from pre-school through the completion of a college degree). The man speaking is the HR Director of Servpro, whose corporate headquarters are located in Gallatin. He himself is not an “outsider”, so to speak, but he is honest about the perspectives of potential employees from outside Sumner County. Director of Schools, Benny Bills, was present at the meeting.

I show you this so you know that my words are not just my opinion. On the contrary, like you I want to be proud of my public school system. But in order for that to happen, progress has to be made. We have to take responsibility, as education consumers, for what we are allowing to happen. Benny Bills has proven time and time again that he is incapable of even keeping pace with neighboring counties, much less progressing. Many of our elected officials on the school board have proven they are incapable of holding Bills accountable for his ineptitude. It is up to us to see that changes do occur. And we can start by demanding that the budget for the coming year be redrafted.

The first draft of the budget, presented to the Board on March 20th showed a $9.2 million shortfall. The most recent draft, presented to the Board on May 18th, showed a $7.9 million shortfall and included the recommendation that the shortfall be addressed by reducing employee benefits (saving $4 million) and eliminating classroom expenditures (saving nearly $3 million). This is unacceptable. And, no, “Republican” Beth Cox, the answer is NOT a property tax increase. You don’t reward the mismanagement of money with more money. There is fat to be trimmed from the budget. There always has been. We can start by not offering benefits to part-time employees.  I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but we have hundreds of employees who work as little as 22.5 hours per week for whom we are paying for their retirement account in full, offering full medical and dental insurance for them and their families, paid vacation and sick leave, etc.  How many of you in the private sector get FULL benefits and only have to work 22.5 hours per week, 38 weeks per year? The reality is the business of the Sumner County Schools is to educate students. Their business is not to offer the greatest benefits, be the best boss, or make sure that everyone in Sumner County has a job. All of those would be great things to be but the MISSION of Sumner County Schools is to prepare students. We would immediately cut $2 million from the budget by cutting benefits for part time employees. That’s $2 million that could be kept in our classrooms.  

Then the next best option would be to outsource some of the classified positions like custodial staff, food service staff, etc. It’s hilarious what a contentious topic studying this has been. The intelligent, business-minded members of the school board (that would be Long, Fussell, Hale and Brewer) couldn’t get those in the Bills faction to even study outsourcing. Studying outsourcing means doing some research by having private sector corporations submit proposals. Beth Cox claimed she did her own research. Well in my most condescending tone I’d like to say, “Sweetheart, there’s only one way to research this topic, and that’s to have companies submit proposals. Asking a handful of teachers and support staff if they think it’s a good idea does not actually constitute doing research.”  Last time I checked, neither the self proclaimed conservative Beth Cox, nor any teacher/principal is in the business of providing these services.  How can they claim to have intimate knowledge about the business side of such a proposal? Would Ms. Cox simply accept complaints and opinions of parents when they state “my child’s teacher/principal doesn’t know what they are doing about so and so” as valid research, or  would she perhaps take the position that the parent doesn’t fully understand the requirements and limitations set down on teachers and administrators by state and federal laws?  I mean if Ms. Cox simply asking for the opinions of teachers/principals on how they FEEL about contracting with others constitutes as valid research on the amount of money that could be saved, why aren’t parents’ opinions also valid research? Is she really now such a liberal, big government-loving, “we must give everyone a job” person that she has completely abandoned her alleged Republican conservatism?  

Seriously, though, why won’t the Board merely study the option of outsourcing? I suspect it’s because they feel pretty confident that the proposals would show huge savings, and then they’d have to scramble to think of more excuses as to why those proposals shouldn’t be accepted. They’ve certainly offered some reasons for why even expanding their knowledge of outsourcing shouldn’t be done, but, just like their justifications for most votes, it’s all exaggerations and distortions. Preying on the fears of parents, they claim, “We’d have strangers working in our schools.” Well, MNPS outsourced custodial positions and approximately 85% of their custodians from last year will be returning. I’m assuming they’re not referring to their current employees as “strangers”. Furthermore, even if “strangers” were going to be hired for some of these positions, it’s doubtful that any new employees could abuse the system much more than trusted “insiders” like Jim Butler, Donna Weidenbenner (the special education teaching assistant accused of abuse), or any of the other 10 to 15 employees hired by Sumner County Schools that have in the past year committed crimes ranging from statutory rape of students, assault on students, molestation of students, contributing to the delinquency of minor students, theft, burglary, drugs, public intoxication at school, etc. (the list literally goes on and on). To those board members who voted down a study of outsourcing support staff positions, I think it would benefit our students if you’d look at all options for shrinking the budget instead of taking the axe first to classroom expenses. When an 8th grader, who is having difficulty grasping some of the concepts to be covered on an upcoming math exam, is crying because she can’t take home a book to review the material, I’d like for one of those seven board members to explain to her why studying outsourcing was such a bad idea when it could have meant having the money to purchase her a math book. Oh yeah, I forgot, Beth Cox already did the research and there were no savings to be had. Thanks, Beth.

And you better believe that after taking away benefits for part-time employees and possibly outsourcing some support staff positions, I’d head right to the central office staff and expenditures for a little trimming. They eat up $11 million of our budget every year. Precious financial resources that should be directed to technology and other classroom applications (textbooks, incentive compensation for effective teachers, etc.) are being used to create non classroom-related jobs.  It really is incredibly unfortunate that when budget cuts have to be made, the FIRST place Benny Bills, Maryanne Durski and the finance department go to is the classroom. That is the best illustration of where our children fall on the priority list Bills and his administration. A big part of why classroom expenses get sent first to the chopping block is because parents can be manipulated into covering these costs. There is negligible funding for technology, but do we do without? No. The burden is merely shifted to dedicated, hard-working PTO’s or made up by collecting ever-increasing student fees. Some $2 million is annually contributed to the budget through student fees. For those areas without high levels of parental involvement, schools rely mostly on hand-me-down hardware or federal funds (except at Gallatin High School where Bills likes to handout “extras” to his old stomping ground, now reigned over by his son-in-law). These are costs that should be covered by the tax-supported public school system. However if the school system were to make budget cuts to non classroom-related jobs, how would they be able to shift that burden to parents? They couldn’t. Thus, cut textbooks to maintain and enable the “jobs creation” mentality that has been prevalent in this school system for decades.

But there is hope. This budget has not been passed, but it will more than likely come to a vote in the next couple of weeks. Beth Cox claims to put our children first. Let her know that voting down classroom cuts is a good way for her to back up those words. Glen Gregory, as a former teacher, principal, and coach, should, of all people, be willing to listen to parents. David Brown will, as well. If you live in Rob Wheeler’s district, I wouldn’t waste your breath. He’s not running for re-election and he has no conscience when it comes to being the shameless apologist for the Bills administration, a role her performs with arrogance and pomposity. Of course, since he is married to the chief lieutenant of Mr. Bills, Assistant Director of Instruction Judy Wheeler, what else would you expect? Ben Harris isn’t running for re-election to the school board either (though those that can vote for him in his County Commission race should pay very close attention to this school budget vote), but I won’t put him in the same category as Wheeler. Perhaps he cares what’s best for our children. Ted Wise may lack the mental capacity to understand what he’s voting on, but I believe he has a heart and will listen to his constituents. Will Duncan is likely a lost cause.

Parents, if the current draft of the budget is passed, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. Our money funds these schools. In fact, 85 cents of every one of our tax dollars is put into the hands of Benny Bills. Our children are the ones in the schools. They are (allegedly) the focus. They are (allegedly) the mission. Our money. Our children. Our decisions. Trim the central office fat. Outsource jobs. Do whatever has to be done, but don’t take money out of our classrooms. Please, I beg you to contact your school board representative and let them know we cannot stand to allow another year go by with underfunded classrooms.  Our children are already behind. It’s time their future was taken into consideration by those board members who so willingly support the current regime rather than look at ALL possibilities to reduce our non-classroom expenditures. 

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Entry filed under: Budget, School Board, sumner county education, sumner county public education, Sumner County Schools, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

We Did Not Create, But We Are Amused Weighing in on the Candidates

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Andy Gregory  |  June 18, 2010 at 5:41 am

    I am very much looking forward to the August election and seeing what results it will bring to the BOE as well as the next school year in general. Everyone knows that Benny Bills is retiring next June, but I wonder if a scenario could arise after the election in which his remaining contract could attempt to be bought out again. This is what I am wondering:

    In District 1, John Bradley appears to be the anti-Bills canddiate. This is based on his statements about hiring the new director outside the district. Reportedly, he is also a close friend of Mike Fussell. Assume he wins his race and Don Long wins re-election. That leaves the open seats of Wheeler and Harris (both Bills men). I still don’t know enough about Ward and Towe to determine what faction they would be in. But in Harris’ district, it seems that candidate Don Sadler might be an anti-Bills man. I only say this because he challenged Harris in the 2008 election and came very close to beating him. One of the other canddiates Andy Daniels immediately draws my suspicions for two reasons. Number 1, he stated in the Gallatin debate, that he has several relatives who work in the system. This immediately draws red flags. Number 2, and this is even scarier. The word on the street says that Daniels has been recruited by….Benny Bills to run in Harris’ place, in order to get his son in law GHS principal Ron Becker named as the new Director of Schools. No way folks, we can’t allow that to happen!!!

    This leaves Will Duncan’s seat as the only other contested one (David Brown is running unopposed). His challenger is Donald Ludgate. Mr. Ludgate did not attend the Gallatin forum and I know almost nothing about his positions. However I do know that Duncan’s time has come and gone. So let’s just say that Ludgate is the “change canddiate” and wins the election.

    The new BOE would thus be made up of Bradley, Long, Brewer, Cox, either Ward or Towe, Hale, Sadler, Wise, Ludgate, Gregory, and Brown. If this is enough pro-buisness, anit-union, and independent-minded members, then would they be able to oust Bills 9 months sooner?

    Another interesting question: Lets say that the BOE does hire another “insider” (e.g. principal in Sumner County) to be the next director. Of course this would not be the best thing for our county, but who would be the best person we could hope for in terms of new ideas and policies?

    Reply
  • 2. Blue Daze  |  June 19, 2010 at 3:20 am

    Could you please support this with the numbers? “I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but we have hundreds of employees who work as little as 22.5 hours per week for whom we are paying for their retirement account in full, offering full medical and dental insurance for them and their families, paid vacation and sick leave, etc. How many of you in the private sector get FULL benefits and only have to work 22.5 hours per week, 38 weeks per year? ”

    Not possible to have a fair discussion of this sentence without the hard data. And in my workplace “offering full medical and dental insurance for them and their families” means I get an employer contribution toward my own medical, for which I also pay in, and I can, at my expense, buy in for my dependents. So it’s “offered” and, in the case of the employee, partially subsidized, but the full cost is not borne by the employer by any stretch. So if you’d be good enough to illuminate . . .???

    Reply
  • 3. Blue Daze  |  June 19, 2010 at 8:01 am

    Oh, and while we’re on outsourcing, I note that Serv-Pro just happens to outsource janitorial services. So while i agree with the speaker in the video that the schools need some real improvement, I don’t think it should be done by screwing working people and increasing corporate profit. Which is exactly what this “Preying on the fears of parents, they claim, “We’d have strangers working in our schools.” Well, MNPS outsourced custodial positions and approximately 85% of their custodians from last year will be returning. I’m assuming they’re not referring to their current employees as strangers” is about – forcing the employees to become “leased” by a corporation back to their former employer, at a pay cut and or loss of benefits to the worker. At the same time, don’t you think the corporation who leases them back wants to make up its overhead, and turn a profit, to provide high wages to management and a dividend to the shareholders? So if the proposal is to screw my neighbors, who go to church with me, whose kids play with my kids, who have rent, or mortgages, groceries etc. to pay just like I do, well that’s pretty distasteful. There’d better be an incredibly compelling reason to do it.

    Reply
  • 4. Andy Gregory  |  June 22, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    http://www.tennessean.com/article/20100617/GALLATIN01/100616065/2139/hendersonville

    This is the link to a newspaper article which contains some of the board member’s recent evaluations of Benny Bills. I think these statements alone, argue the case for a new direction for our school system.

    Reply
  • 5. Blue Daze  |  June 22, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    I couldn’t agree more, Andy.

    Reply
  • 6. Jan  |  June 25, 2010 at 2:29 am

    Does anyone know how the school system plans to use $3,303,741 from Race to the Top funds or how the $timulus money was spent?

    Reply
    • 7. Blue Daze  |  June 26, 2010 at 6:56 am

      Jan, it should be a matter of public record. Why don’t you drop an email to the district office and ask them to see the records?

      Reply

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