A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.
– Martin Luther King Jr.
If Johnson City and Washington County leaders have begun moving toward mutually beneficial solutions for the challenges facing our local public schools, the first move was inauspicious at best. Yet, after last Thursday’s session between the city school board and county commissioners, I hope they have started a long journey with a small step.
While it’s clear they disagree on several things, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Johnson City School Superintendent Richard Bales agreed Thursday on one thing: Educational attainment, and quality public education, are the most important keys to young people’s future success in life and work. The better-educated a local population is, the more likely its community is to attract the jobs and investment that translate into prosperity and a high quality of life.
A dozen Washington County commissioners and Eldridge were at the city schools’ central office to hear city school representatives discuss “achievements and funding.”
One naked truth is that the city schools achieve more per capita than the county schools – if test scores and higher educational attainment are the measures – and that they do so with per pupil funding some 12 percent higher than Washington County’s. Another naked truth is that local option sales tax collections and allocations, as directed by state law, are the primary cause of Johnson City’s ability to fund its schools more generously than Washington County does its own.
Both systems, by the way, overachieve significantly relative to their spending when stacked up against other Tennessee systems.
The meeting came as both systems face annual wrestling matches with their respective funding bodies. Those tussles have become increasingly frustrating for the schools as we move further into an era of flat government revenues and fiscal belt-tightening.
The meeting came as Washington County and Johnson City appear set to face off in a lawsuit over liquor by the drink tax revenues, as some sharp attorney downstate has discovered that cities may not have been sharing those revenues – which go to schools – with counties as required by law.
The meeting came after a year in which the state legislature turned annexation law on its head. It came a year after Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and his Johnson City counterpart, Ralph Van Brocklin, stood together for a photo on the steps of Boones Creek Middle School to signify their mutual desire to forge a path toward intergovernmental collaboration on education. Events, and quite possibly attitudes as well, have served to sour that relationship for the time being.
Richard Bales is right: If Washington County wants to increase funding for its schools under the current scenario, there is an answer. That answer — a special “rural” tax — is highly unlikely to be implemented. It is also a galling suggestion to county representatives who, despite the semantic gyrations deployed by “the other side” in its explanations about funding, can very clearly see an inequity does exist.
Dan Eldridge is right: Washington County consumers spend most of their money in Johnson City, and Johnson City benefits disproportionately from that fact. City school officials took pains Thursday to note the city government tops off the schools’ budget out of its general fund instead of specifically directing its extra sales tax dollars toward schools. To imply that the sales tax inequity isn’t the proximate cause of the city schools’ higher per-pupil expenditures is a fallacy, and one I would hope all of our local high school graduates have the critical thinking skills to see through.
Yet it is only natural for city school leaders to want to defend their current status, particularly in the difficult fiscal climate. If I’m not getting as much from the city as I think I need, why in the world should I consider sharing some of what I do have with the county? So Mayor Eldridge, fair as it may be to change the allocation of local option sales tax, you know that dog won’t hunt.
Some of my acquaintances know I think school consolidation may be the best long-term answer for our community. That is community, singular, because that is certainly how people from outside the area view us – and that should tell us all something about how we should view ourselves.
I boned up on consolidation just a bit this week, skimming through reports from two state agencies. By the way (though this is not in itself a reason to pursue consolidation), did you know that Johnson City’s is the largest municipal school system in Tennessee? Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Murfreesboro, Jackson all have consolidated systems.
Done properly, consolidation would not be easy. The best way to do it would to be use Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 Part 12. It outlines provisions for a “unification educational planning commission,” and includes “very specific requirements for the planning process and an approval process for all legislative bodies and citizens involved,” according to a 2012 report from the state comptroller’s office.
Using this part of Title 49 would require calm, thoughtful, harmonious leadership. Eyes would have to be kept on the prize of constructing the most excellent, equitable system to ensure the best opportunity at life success for all of our community’s schoolchildren.
It would be a wonderful circumstance, and a pleasant surprise at this point, if we media folk suddenly began reporting that mayors Van Brocklin and Eldridge, and their respective school board leaders, had agreed on principles and begun putting into practice a path toward K-12 (pre-K if you like) solutions for all 17,000 local students.
While some may choose to see last Thursday’s meeting as an exercise in futility attended by two sides entrenched in their own camps, I choose to see it as the beginning of something good. And I wait for those molders of consensus to come forward, because I believe the seeds of consensus exist under the soil of the current tension. Our kids and our community deserve no less.