By Bob Eby
Friday, June 20
This week, I experienced great joy and significant sadness. The joy was being with my daughter and son-in-law as she birthed our first grandchild and we brought her home from the hospital in California. It was because I was with them during this joyous time that I missed last Monday night’s City Council meeting, but I did watch it live through Internet streaming (technology is great!). It was during that time that I felt sadness and disappointment. I realized that this wonderful community I have known for 50 years now balances on a tipping point, to fall on a downward spiral or gradually move forward with a great and dedicated effort toward prosperity. Why do I say this?
Last year, the Board of Education hired a new superintendent who brought with him much energy and a vision to re-establish the Oak Ridge Schools to its premier status as not only the number one school district in the State of Tennessee but also the premier district in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the country. The Board fully supported the vision, though we were recommending a three-year roll-out, which we felt was more realistic and would allow opportunity to adjust the implementation as we and the staff worked together to achieve our goals.
With their recent action, the City Council not only chose not to support this vision, but they very likely have failed to provide our teachers and associated staff the recognition they so deserve with any funding for their first raise (2 percent) in four years. City Council does plan to provide city-employeed staff with a raise. I think it is only right that all employees of our community receive a raise. All school staff and city employees are equally deserving of this recognition of their value to Oak Ridge.
I have served on the Board for three different elected terms covering four different decades. Previous to this current 5.5-year term, I felt both governing bodies recognized that the primary drawing card to bring young families to Oak Ridge was our schools. While the City Council and Board did not always agree on budgets, I always felt that each elected body respected the other, listened and worked with a common goal.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that situation has continued to exist with the current City Council. I believe that some members of Council made up their mind prior to hearing the proposed budget from the Schools and were unwilling to consider any option. Please know I do not believe all of the Council members feel this way, but when it only takes four votes to reject a motion (and only three if any one member of council is absent), preconceived notions are not beneficial to anyone. Council members need to approach such important decisions with an open mind, and I think it is wrong for any elected official whether a Board member or a Council member to announce their position before hearing the motion and discussing it fully. By stating your position “a priori,” it is then very difficult to publically change it, even if you wanted to.
This year’s failure to provide any additional funds was particularly tough for me to comprehend. For the first time in my elected history, the Chamber of Commerce became vocally involved in a specific school issue and provided their Chamber Board’s wholehearted support of the technology initiative. Thank you Chamber leadership and Chamber Board members for your support of this innovative plan. The Chamber recognized that the city needs to produce technology-savvy people if we hope to draw new business into the city
But again, it appears the majority of Council members were not willing to listen to what the major business community of the city is saying. Most Council members continue to insist high taxes would drive businesses away while the representatives of the business community said otherwise. Chamber leadership said they had never heard of a new business failing to locate in a city because of high taxes. The City Council partners with the Chamber on economic development. Why should our Council not listen to what they have to say?
I thank councilmen Chuck Hope and Charlie Hensley for their recognition that something needed to be done and voting against the budget proposal submitted by the city manager, which had zero increase for the schools. It is clear to me that both of these gentlemen were willing to speak favorably for the need for a change. I also agree with Councilman Hensley that the Board and city should get together early on to discuss needs. The superintendent and city manager did have numerous discussions talking about the needs of our schools. I believe that the city manager utilizes general direction from Council members in making budget recommendations.
As I said at the outset of this letter, I believe that Oak Ridge teeters on a balance. It can continue to go down a path that has shown little, if any, growth over the past 15 years of belt-tightening, or it can recognize the importance of the schools, take positive and bold action, and begin publicly supporting Oak Ridge’s schools and its staff. Show young families a dynamic and enthusiastic community to move to!
Do we need to address housing issues? Sure! But how many major housing decisions are made on $200 per year of tax-deductible expense amounting to approximately $15 per month? That is what we are talking about for a $190,000 house in Oak Ridge.
Could we ask the U.S. Department of Energy for higher payment in lieu of taxes (PILT ) funds? Yes—let’s explore these issues together.
Instead of arguments and accusations, let us remember and broadcast what a wonderful community asset we have in our schools and staff. Without a reason to live in Oak Ridge, young families will have little motivation to not choose west Knoxville and Maryville to locate when they are faced with a choice. We want and need young families to live in our community. Let us give them the best reason: the future of their children.
How many of us have $15 per month of money each month for dinners out, lottery tickets, or other things we could give up to grow this city? It all gets down to choice—the choice of what is important for each person. I was a product of the Oak Ridge Schools as was my wife and two children. I no longer have children in Oak Ridge, and my wife no longer teaches in the Oak Ridge Schools; however, I will gladly pay it forward and pay my share to provide other young families the same benefits I and my family enjoyed over the past 50 years.
It is important to support our older population by preserving their home values, net wealth, and many historical neighborhoods. By attracting younger families to our city, we will. They will broaden our tax base and allow our city to grow.
Criticism continues to come that we have the highest per-capita spending for our students as compared to any other school system in the state. We are constantly compared to other schools. When doing so, it is very important to be sure we are comparing apples to apples. Please know cities have vast differences in demographics, in how school funds are accounted, in the way administrators are counted, and in what services each system offers. Larger school systems have a bigger base to spread fixed and administrative costs and affluent neighborhoods that provide extras to their individual schools. Oak Ridge prides itself in providing services to gifted and challenged students. But that’s not all. Oak Ridge Schools has a history of providing wonderful opportunities and support to all its students and their families. The Superintendent’s seven keys to success is a program in which every student is valued and tracked through their academic progress in our schools. Each student will have the goal of one of three paths forward when they graduate high school. Please study the facts before making broad unjustifiable statements.
People who say we do not need 1:1 in the school system do not realize the ramifications of their words. How many of them have their own smart phones or computers or enjoy the benefits of cable TV, high efficiency heat pumps, airplanes, etc. These are all products of technology. The technology initiative is not a question of “IF” we will do it. No, it is a question of “WHEN” we will do it. We can wait and let Lenoir City, Knox County, and Blount County beat us there and capture potential young families to our community. Each of these systems is already implementing a 1:1 initiative. I hope not, but it may be too late to be the leader. At this point, we do not want, nor can we afford, to fall further behind. The city as a whole, just like the Chamber, needs to get behind this initiative even if it costs each of us a few extra dollars per month.
2014 is an election year nationally, but more importantly for us, it is a local election too. I feel strongly that it is wrong for an election to be based on a single issue; however, I see the upcoming November election largely becoming a referendum on the future of Oak Ridge with support of schools being a major emphasis. With four City Council and three Board of Education seats up for election, the majority of both bodies will be elected. I think it is important for the residents of the city to understand all the issues and state the direction they want our city to go via the vote. I also believe it is important that those seeking office need to clearly state their position and, if elected, to carry out the positions they ran on. Claiming to support schools or any issue and voting otherwise is disingenuous. I do plan to run again for the Oak Ridge Board of Education. Win or lose, I will abide and support the residents’ vote in the city that I love and hope to call home for as long as God gives me on this earth. Please let your position be heard through our election process and encourage others around you to do the same. Our city future does hang in the balance.
Bob Eby is vice chair of the Oak Ridge Board of Education.