Here’s Lookin’ at You, Keys

I originally wrote this piece to address the BOE chair’s column point-by-point. After I’d completed it, I was less than satisfied. I think it’s because I’m sick of this never ending game that the BOE continues to play. I’ve tried in earnest for years to work with each and every member of this board and have come to the conclusion that none of them really care about the truth. They go out of their way to excuse the inexcusable and to settle for the rubbish that the administration feeds them without question.  I’m going to take a different direction with the response I submit to the press. For those that seek truth and understanding, I decided to share this response here.

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In this column, Keys Fillauer responded to my previous column in which I posed the question of our schools, “Are we getting what we’re paying for?” I expected to be challenged but was very disappointed at the lack of substance offered by Mr. Fillauer.

Of all of the false claims he made, I was most surprised by his statement that I presented “facts without actually knowing the facts.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I consistently cite my sources, which include the State of TN Department of Education, local audits and city documents.

Ironically, Mr. Fillauer repeatedly commits the same faux pas he accuses me of. First, he attempts to justify our failing reading and math scores by claiming that the state averages also dropped. This is inaccurate at best. From 2010 to 2011, state scores actually increased in three out of  the four areas he listed. See for yourself here under the columns of  “% Prof & Adv.”

Next, Mr. Fillauer states that “teachers and students are being asked to do more.” I agree but question his sincerity given how he defends the mystery software that ORPSEF provided last year. I understand that this software actually adds to the burden of teachers because they now must spend even more time doing data entry. To date, no one has explained exactly how this is beneficial to the learning process.

Furthermore, I fail to understand how the BOE and administration can justify accepting such an expensive gift ($350K) that is neither educational nor essential in design while simultaneously asking Oak Ridgers to pay for millions of dollars in building repairs and replacement.

Since I moved here 12 years ago, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that Oak Ridge Schools take better care of their top performing students than they do of the average students. I take that back. I can tell you that I’ve heard it almost as much as I’ve heard the schools publicly celebrate their star pupils. Mr. Fillauer substantiates this theory by acknowledging that the majority of our students are failing core subjects and, in a subsequent breath, praising the Advanced Placement (AP) students.

One need only look at our high school course offerings to see that we cater to the more gifted students. From the 2009/2010 HS Program of Studies, you can count that we offer  52 Honors, Advanced Placement and College Level courses. How many remedial classes do we offer? Seven. It’s no wonder that our Alternative School population has exploded over the years.

Another fact that Mr. Fillauer spins in the schools’ favor relates to their refusal to pay their portion of the high school mortgage. Ignoring the citizen mandate (the referendum) completely, he states that the claim of a gentleman’s agreement is an insufficient reason for them to pay up. Has he forgotten that it was the BOE who first cited a gentleman’s agreement as a reason NOT to pay? I’ve posted the school attorney’s original letter on my website to refresh his memory. He might also want to refer to his fellow board member’s recollection of events here and here.

Mr. Fillauer asks, “Do these citizens know what these dollars pay for?”  I’ve been a student of the schools’ budget for over 6 years now and sadly, I will admit that I cannot fully answer this question. I cannot answer it because the BOE cannot answer it. The volume of incomplete and inconsistent data put forth by the administration is mind-numbing and almost never explainable by the BOE, primarily, I believe, because they themselves do  not understand it.

I’ll give you one example. Every year, in addition to their annual budget contribution, the city provides the schools $700,000 for capital needs. Yet, the amounts that the schools are reporting to the state don’t even come close to that amount. The state website,  Table 46 entitled “Total Expenditures for Capital Outlay” shows that the schools reported spending the following amounts:

$337,412 (2010)

$158,950 (2009)

$102,376 (2008)

$339,435 (2007)

Not one of these years did the schools report spending even HALF the amount that the city gave them for capital projects. By my math, for just the years I’ve listed, there is over $1.8million unaccounted for. I don’t know what those dollars paid for. Do you, Mr. Fillauer?

Just as the BOE has proclaimed for years, Mr. Fillauer reminded us that they go over their budget “line by line.” He asks us to “Please come and sit across the table and enjoy this process with us.”As he is aware, I have done this very thing. In fact, I have sat through well over 40 hours of such meetings and would testify under oath that the school budget process is neither enjoyable nor transparent. Every year, they shift items into different categories, they split single positions into multiple line items or they reflect wildly different audit figures than what had been previously approved without explanation. I could go on, but you get the point.

To justify a decade of inflated spending, Mr. Fillauer asks, “Do you know what other systems receive from their city to help offset expenses?” I think I know what they don’t receive. According to the city manager, we are one of the few cities in the state that bears the burden for the buildings instead of the schools. If one were to calculate those assets into the per pupil spending, imagine how much higher it would climb!

Another reason Mr. Fillauer gives for our inflated spending is our bus service. What he neglects to mention is that just a few years ago the BOE cut bus service within the one mile radius (which represented less than 1% of their total budget) as a political ploy to get more money from the city. Mr. Fillauer, how dare you try to take credit for something that you cut that resulted in the endangerment of innocent children! Disingenuous does not even begin to describe your comment on the matter especially considering that just two years after reinstating full bus service, you completely cut morning service to those who needed it the most – our Head Start preschoolers.

Mr. Fillauer challenges me to go into any classroom knowing full well that I have children in this system and am in the classroom quite regularly. I do appreciate the work of our teachers and staff and believe that my children receive a quality education. But my children do not represent all of our children and the quality I speak of does not justify the exorbitant costs we pay.

At least three times in his column, Mr. Fillauer challenges me to “look him in the eye” while at the same time going out of his way to not address me by name. Since I have directly addressed the BOE at their own meetings countless times, I do not take his challenge literally. I’m not entirely clear what the alternative meaning is, but if by chance it is a veiled form of intimidation, it’s not working.

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