By Jeff Keeling
If Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge offered a lesson in how to not build consensus over the past few months, the folks grappling with relations between the Johnson City and Washington County schools appear to be on track toward that lesson’s happy opposite. For the sake of our community’s education systems and our future prosperity, or lack thereof, let’s hope so.
Three months ago, Johnson City Commissioner David Tomita spoke up during the open comment period at the end of a commission meeting and tossed out the “c” word: consolidation. What Tomita floated that night was formation of a task force to examine the potential pros and cons of consolidating the city’s and county’s public school systems. Up front, he suggested such an effort would be fruitful only if the various players were willing to tamp down, to the greatest extent possible, their own preconceived notions and protectiveness of turf.
The suggestion got a verbal, informal endorsement from city mayor Ralph Van Brocklin that night. It envisioned a mix of elected officials, school officials and members of the general public. From there, the task force idea endured some early mild attacks in the form of dismissive comments from a few officials reported in the community’s daily paper.
And from there, the idea also wended its way into the purview of the county commission’s Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) committee. It is within and through that committee the lessons in broad consensus-building appear to be taking root.
Katie Baker, the commission’s only female member and one of its youngest, chairs HEW. Knowing what a fragile embryo they are handling, she and her fellow committee members have proceeded with extreme caution in working toward the task force’s establishment.
City school leaders, understandably, get quite nervous when consolidation pops up as a topic.
Their schools are better funded than the county’s are, and while both systems academically outperform their peers relative to per pupil spending, Johnson City consistently ranks as one of the top two or three systems in Tennessee. In city school board members’ minds consolidation, particularly since funding responsibility would shift solely to a county commission that has traditionally funded schools less well than the city, could jeopardize that.
So in August, the HEW appeared to move hardly at all down the road to the task force. But sometimes moving just a little in the early going helps lay a foundation for momentum later. Baker said at the time that a better first step might be a task force focused on, “small spaces where the city and county can begin to work together to improve education outcomes.”
Baker mentioned how both systems have excellent programs from which the other system might benefit. And she suggested tweaking Tomita’s initial idea, creating a group “to come back with innovative, modern ideas on where the (systems) already overlap and how they can work together on smaller projects before dividing everyone over the C-word.”
Since that meeting, the folks involved in the process have continued to make haste slowly, as the saying goes. And it appears to be working. City Commissioner Jenny Brock, a former school board member and a staunch advocate for the city schools if ever there was one, spoke glowingly of the process Monday. For my money, you can chalk that up to how considerate the HEW has been of all the perspectives that must be considered and respected if this process is going to succeed.
The task force process started around, or possibly even before, Mayor Eldridge began pushing his capital/spending plan in earnest. By Monday night’s county commission meeting, task force members hadn’t even been selected, but the process clearly had momentum. Conversely, Eldridge’s plan had been complimented and shot down – complimented for its solid foundations, shot down for the lack of consensus-building that had accompanied its release.
School funding accounts for roughly half of all our local governments’ spending. The relative success of all the other things on which we spend our public money – infrastructure, quality of life amenities, economic development – rests to a large degree on our ability to produce well-educated young people who can start their own businesses or serve as valuable employees.
My sense remains that the long-term best route to countywide educational excellence probably is a consolidated K-12 system, with the caveat that it’s well-funded. In the meantime, I’ll welcome any mutual victories this Fledgling task force can help bring our schools and community once it gets up and running.