By Scott Robertson
So much has been done wrong in so short a period, and so much of it was avoidable. The Boones Creek K-8 school development could have been a model of how government entities could work together to get more bang for the taxpayers’ buck. Instead, it’s just another sad example of what’s wrong with county politics.
Here’s what was promising: the Washington County Commission had voted to fund creation of a new Boones Creek school through a property tax increase. So the money was in place. A new director of schools came to the county, with expertise in starting new schools in Tennessee to go along with a can-do attitude. So the professional leadership was in place.
All that had to happen was for the elected officials to put aside their egos, agendas, and in some cases, outright loathing of each other in order to best serve the taxpayers of Washington County for generations to come.
That’s where it all fell apart.
The elected officials involved in the latest kerfuffle in Jonesborough (and their behind-the-scenes supporters) were, as the late Dennis Green might say, who we thought they were, unfortunately. None of them flipped the script and adhered to the advice of their better angels. Everybody played to type.
The school board members who feared the mayor would somehow turn the Boones Creek project to his personal gain held up progress this summer, repeatedly failing to choose and approve a site, even when there was only one site up for consideration.
When the mayor mentioned the county might purchase less than the maximum amount of acreage on which the county had an option – based on the footprint of the school building the board chose – the board promptly abandoned the three different two-story building plans it had been considering in favor of a one-story building that had a larger footprint. The official explanation was that doing so cut out the elevator cost. Of course it added to the costs of land, grading, foundation construction, and roofing, not to mention roofing repairs for years to come, but that was beside the point.
But it took both sides to turn this project sideways, and both sides did their part. The mayor, as he has done before, made himself an easy target.
His detractors (and most of his friends, to be frank) have always said that Eldridge is a great numbers guy who is as bad with people as he is good with figures. He has overseen the spending of millions of dollars while saving millions more. He has stepped on many toes in the process.
After working up the long-range planning that included the Boones Creek and Jonesborough school tax funding, Eldridge and Mitch Meredith, the county’s director of budget and finance, hit upon the idea of having the Washington County Commission’s Budget Committee work with the Washington County Board of Education in some sort of committee/task force. The idea, they said, would be to offer their experience in handling budgets to the board. That way, they might be able to show the board how to save a few dollars on, say, the Boones Creek project that could then be used on the Jonesborough project. The board and the commission could stay on the same page throughout the process.
But the two guys who are often criticized for appearing to think they’re the smartest in the room did something truly dumb. They failed to formally report to the rest of the commission what they were doing and how they were doing it. Despite the board of education having approved formation of the task force August 2, the full commission never discussed the task force’s formation.
So instead of Budget Committee Chair Joe Grandy asking at Monday’s commission meeting to add a report from the task force’s first meeting into the “New Business” portion of the agenda, other commissioners had to ask to be brought up to speed.
Eldridge, Meredith and the Budget Committee forewent the opportunity to voluntarily answer questions before they were asked. They gave up the opportunity to ask that the rules be suspended to allow the full commission to vote on task force membership that night. Instead, they forced the other commissioners to pry information from them while acting as though they were surprised that anyone might have any problems with any of it.
Commissioners had to ask why the full commission’s Committee on Committees hadn’t had a chance to choose the members of this task force. They had to ask why it was being called a committee when it was obviously a task force. They had to ask how the task force had even come to exist at all. They were not shown the memorandum of understanding that brought the task force into existence. They were not told how the task force could work with both the board and the commission to bridge gaps that currently hurt efficiency (such as the fact that the highway commissioner and the school board had yet, as of last week, to address ingress and egress from the Boones Creek site together).
Then, as a bonus, commissioners were misinformed by a school board member about the task force’s origin. Board member Phillip McLain remembered only that the board’s Finance Committee had approved the idea of the task force, conveniently forgetting that the full board had voted unanimously for its formation just three hours later. Most commissioners left the meeting Monday convinced by McLain that the board had never approved the creation of the task force, when the minutes of the Aug. 2 board meeting show McLain had, in fact, voted for it along with the rest of the board members in a roll call vote.
The bottom line? We’ll continue plodding along as we’ve always done. Oh sure, the board still has the option of inviting the commission’s budget wizards to help save a penny here and a dollar there. And the mayor and the Budget Committee may still go through channels to set up something the board and the commission can all get behind. But the chance to do so for the Boones Creek project has passed.
A great opportunity has been lost. And it didn’t have to be like this.