Nov 9, 06 LTE (Oak Ridger) – 1st Response to CAFE

My family moved to Oak Ridge 6 years ago in large part because of the excellent school system we’d heard about. Since then, ORSD has met or exceeded our expectations in almost every way.

As a parent and a citizen, I appreciate any effort that is made on behalf of children when it comes to their education, including those efforts currently being made by the Oak Ridge Community Advocates for Excellence (OR CAFE). However, contrary to their statements about our city council, I believe they too, are vested in our children’s education. Which is why I supported their decision last May to forgo an increase in the property tax rate to fund the school budget $490,000 shortfall.

Now, you may ask, “Why would any true supporter of Oak Ridge schools stand against fully funding their budget?” If you assume the OR CAFE’s position, you would believe that the entire responsibility of the ORSD financial woes rests on the city council’s shoulders. In fact, I’d hoped that their most recent article, “The Devil is in the Details,” would have provided the types of information that had served as the basis for my decision.

While a plethora of information regarding the school system’s budget can be found on their website, details, such as the specifics which led me to my decision to convey my stance to the city council, are not available. For example, through PTSA communications, I discovered that a custodian position salaried at $36,954 as well as an Athletic Director position salaried at $94,716 were originally included in the budget. And though they were subsequently cut, the fact that such high salaries for these positions was ever on the table to begin with disturbs me. I want a school system that clearly, and, in every possible way demonstrates, the value of education and educators above all else. These line items do not demonstrate that and make me question the overall judgment that was applied to the budget development process. I believe that these types of details are critical not only to the city council, but to citizens like myself, in accurately assessing fiscal responsibility.

This leads me to another matter which is often vocalized loudly when it comes to school finance matters. OR CAFÉ has not missed the opportunity to use the issue of teacher pay as a major platform for their agenda. Again, I completely agree with OR CAFE that competitive salaries and benefits are critical to attracting and retaining high-qualified staff. However, it should be noted that there have been many studies, including recent national news reports, that indicate that the amount of money available to a school does not directly correlate with the quality of the education received by its students. Fortunately, our students enjoy the benefits of both competitively paid and highly qualified teachers. Which is why I am confused by OR CAFÉ’s statement regarding a “decline in salaries compared to competing school districts.” I hope that they will elaborate because the information I have found contradicts it completely. A November 2005 report from the State of TN Board of Education lists the 2005 average base salary for Oak Ridge teachers at $46,988 (not including benefits) compared to the state average of $38,115. This average exceeds, by far in most cases, the average salaries of any other East TN school district. Furthermore, the report cites only 2 other school districts in the entire state as having higher averages.

OR CAFÉ states that in recent budget debates “it has been too easy to pit one city service against another.” But they are taking the same approach in making school budget deficiencies a case of the city council verses the schools. If your goal truly is to promote informed decisions by citizens and city leaders, then I hope that you will equally scrutinize the budgetary decisions of the schools as much as you have the city council. You have obtained an excellent position (in your recurrent spot in the Oak Ridger) from which you can effect positive change. With this visibility comes the responsibility; no, make that the obligation, of providing accurate and complete information.

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