By Scott Robertson
When Ron Dykes was the director of schools in Washington County, I used to ask him before school board meetings, “Anything interesting going to happen tonight?” He would always reply, “Nah. Probably not worth your time.”
The school system had provided the agenda ahead of time, of course. I always knew well before I spoke with Dykes what was up for consideration at the meeting. Ours was just a little ritual of conversation. But now, after having seen Dykes’ successor, Kimber Halliburton, throw in the towel after less than two full years of tolerating the pettiness and nonsensical behavior of that board, I am forced to wonder if Dykes wasn’t actually hoping to dissuade me from seeing how ineptly some board members discharged their duties.
As director of schools, Halliburton started by committing the cardinal sin of Washington County politics. She attempted to work with anyone, regardless of which side they took on various issues. For the school board members who detest County Mayor Dan Eldridge, her willingness to sit across the table from him in productive meetings was unforgivable.
Halliburton not only worked with the mayor, but with county commissioners – both pro- and anti-Eldridge, to find a way to fund both construction of new facilities and repair and refurbishment of older ones. She worked with the school board and with the principals at existing schools to determine what work needed to be done at which schools. When all that was done, a dollar figure was arrived at that would cover the costs, and that figure was taken to the county commission.
In a county in which tax hikes are as popular as toothaches, the majority of commissioners agreed that the education of the county’s students was worth raising property taxes.
That’s when the school board decided politics were more important than educating the children they professed to serve. The board refused to take yes for an answer in funding school projects. We’re nearing the two-year mark since the tax increase was levied, June 28, 2016. Yet the Jonesborough project remains in limbo.
The board has spent the better part of two years demanding the county spend more money than was originally budgeted for that project. In the meantime, multiple construction deadlines have come and gone. Parents who supported a tax increase so their children would benefit from the funds have watched in increasing frustration. While virtually everyone else involved shook their heads in disbelief, the board has held meeting after meeting in which it refused to simply do what it had told everyone it would do.
Some political wags have wondered aloud whether the board was dragging its feet because it wanted Halliburton gone. Others said the reason was simpler: this school board cannot stop spending money. Give them 32 cents in new property taxes and they’ll want 32 more.
This is the same board, after all, that having just been told it needed to keep costs down in the new Boones Creek school, immediately put all the necessary equipment into the gymnasium concession stand to allow for the cooking and sale of fried cheese sticks. As if that would pay for itself.
Either way, Jonesborough families have gotten nothing in return for their higher property tax bills. Halliburton last week moved on to a job where she’s less likely to be hamstrung by political infighting.
Was Halliburton’s tenure wonderful? No. She could legitimately be faulted for focusing too much on new facilities and technology and too little on important items like teacher pay and school bus safety.
But Halliburton took the high road out of town, leaving with quiet dignity, taking no shots at those who stabbed her in the back. This board, in contrast, may have heard of the notion of dignity, but it seems to want no truck with it.
So now comes the interesting part. Will the board, with Halliburton out of the way, suddenly decide to fund Jonesborough within the budgeted parameters? If so, that’s a good news-bad news scenario. It will mean the school may finally move forward, but it will be a clear sign that the year-plus wasted arguing about funding Jonesborough was just political kabuki.
That would be sad. If a majority of the board wanted Halliburton gone that badly, it could simply have removed her from the director position a year ago. There was no need to hold the Jonesborough project hostage to intemperate building demands.
On the other hand, if the majority of the board continues to push plans for Jonesborough that are over budget, the county commission should hold firm on spending. The taxpayers went along, many unwillingly, with one tax hike. For the school board to demand more funding now shows a lack of respect for the taxpayers and poor stewardship of our money.
Regardless, a majority of the current board members have shown they would serve the county best in the next elections by following Halliburton out the door.