May 31, 07 LTE (Observer) – The Big Picture – Pre Election

There’s a lot of uncertainty in our city’s future and our struggle to find answers continues. We lack a consensus on what factors are essential to our vitality. I don’t claim to have the answers as to what those factors may be, but I do know that increased taxes and increased debt DO NOT make a community attractive to potential citizens.

Unfortunately, at the last city council meeting, we reaffirmed our position as having the 4th highest tax rate in the state and council indicated their desire to increase our debt by funding Crestpointe which places us in the position of making another critical decision. With the results aired on local news programs, we sent the message to potential citizens that Oak Ridger’s love their schools, debt, and taxes.

Given this message, one really doesn’t have to wonder why less than 10% of new employees (and somewhere between 10-30% of current employees) of our largest employer choose to move here. By the way, these are the same people who, by a Y-12 representative at the city council meeting, voiced their overwhelming support for Crestpointe. Well, why wouldn’t they? After all, it would mean avoiding Turkey Creek traffic and more convenient lunchtime shopping without having to foot the bill.

At this same meeting, one citizen stated that Oak Ridge Schools put us on the map – that the schools were our only shining star. I beg to differ. In fact, as the council meeting was in progress, an episode of Jeopardy revealed a bit of trivia in which Oak Ridge was the answer and the question had nothing to do with our schools. While our schools are certainly a draw, we have many components that attract people from all over the world, not the least of which is our science and technology. Our city services, preservation societies, environmental groups, sports facilities and our elderly all deserve credit and all deserve equitable consideration when it comes to funding.

You’ve undoubtedly heard many times from some 1-3% of citizens at public meetings that they moved here for the schools – but you’ll never hear a non-Oak Ridger stand up at one of our City Council or school board meetings and tell you why they don’t move here. Ask your coworkers who don’t live here why that is.

I reiterate my support and admiration for our schools. The benefits my family has received are incalculable. But, they demanded and received increased funding that is nearly double the Consumer Price Index without having to answer to anyone. The high attendance at public meetings was their justification that the majority supported their position. But the majority did not attend these meetings – in fact, you couldn’t fit 14,000 people in those rooms if you tried. Furthermore, I suspect (given statements from various school staff) that the ORSB has encouraged, if not instructed, them to join their quest, and that those packed houses were comprised largely of school staff.

If you are thinking “What’s done is done” and do not see the connection between the property tax increase and Crestpointe, refer to Mr. Bradshaw’s statement in Friday’s paper: “The mayor said last year’s budget deliberations clearly indicated a need for additional support for Oak Ridge schools, and the latest citizen survey revealed that 63 percent of Oak Ridgers cited shopping as a pressing need. ‘These two problems,’ he said, ‘are linked at the hip.’”

If our population is dwindling and the excellence of our schools fails to attract most of the 12,000 DOE workers, the very people who have the best possible exposure to what Oak Ridge has to offer, how can anyone conclude that increasing taxes will solve any problem?

Furthermore, with four times the debt level of Knoxville (who has six times our population) we are preparing to increase that debt by another potential $10 million. Let me ask this – if you personally were drowning in debt, would a wise financial advisor suggest that you go into even further debt to solve your financial problems? Or would they suggest that you eliminate your debt before investing in the next “sure thing?”

I am convinced that many of us have been mislead by the belief that we’ve had to chose one side over the other, when in fact, the two seemingly opposing sides have created an alliance. I do not fault either body for their decisions. They simply did as we collectively demanded – whether by statement or silence. But I hope that more people realize the necessity to speak out publicly and demand answers. Finally, I urge all citizens to elect officials who are committed to reversing the negative population growth trend and who are committed to decreasing our debt. Likewise, vote against any measure that would contribute to these factors.

Facts of interest about Oak Ridge, Oak Ridge Schools (ORS) and Oak Ridge School Board (ORSB):

– Oak Ridge’s population has remained stagnant for over 20 years, even experiencing a negative (-.3%) population growth between 2000-2005. During this same time, our neighbors have experienced positive growth with Maryville growing by 11.8%, Kingston by 4%, Alcoa by 8.5%, Lenoir City by 12.6%, and Farragut by 7.5%.

– 90% of the employees of Oak Ridge’s largest employer have refused to live in Oak Ridge for the past 20 years or longer. This remains true, even now, at a time when DOE is hiring a considerable number of people.

– Oak Ridge schools spend more per student than any other school district in the state. According to the TN Dept. of Education, ORSD tops all of the states’ 136 other school districts in operating expenditures per student at $9943.

– Oak Ridge school teachers are the 3rd highest paid teachers in the state. A 2005 report from the State of TN Board of Education lists the 2005 average base salary for ORS teachers at $46,988 compared to the state average of $38,115. This exceeds, by far in most cases, the average salaries of any other East TN district.

– With roughly 650 employees, our students benefit from a ratio of one employee to every 6.5 students.

– ORSB submitted a report to the state which was adopted April 4, 2007 that included an intent to hire 13.5 new staff members to accommodate the 9 new students that are enrolled for the next school year

– The state of Tennessee has indicated that they are going to grant Oak Ridge schools between $268,000 and $3,041,000 – the minimum being twice that of the reported shortfall

– Four years ago, the city council devised a 5 year strategic plan that included an annual increase of 4.1% (which exceeded what the CPI would allow) towards school funding.

– In May 2006, the city elected to stay the course of their strategic plan and declined the request of the ORSB to raise property taxes to fund the school budget $490,000 shortfall.

– Subsequently, the ORSB (by their own decision) cut bus transportation for students living inside a 1 mile radius for the 2006/2007 school year

– Shortly thereafter, the CAFÉ group was organized and led indirectly by ORSB to influence the citizenry to demand the City Council meet ORSB funding demands at all costs.

– In 2007, the ORSB asked city officials for an 8.8% increase in funding — or about $13.1 million in city funding. That request would have required a 7-cent property tax rate increase for the schools alone

– On May 21st, 2007 Oak Ridge City Council voted to increase property taxes by 10 cents with a promise to give 50% of those funds to the schools

– In spite of this substantial increase and a potential $268,000-$3 million grant anticipated from the state, on May 24, 2007 a member of the ORSB and Dr. Bailey site a $140,000 shortfall as the reason for not fully reinstating funding for bus transportation

– The city of Oak Ridge has approximately $115 million in debt – 4 times the debt of Knoxville which has 6 times our population

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