On Keplar Elementary, Economies of Scale, and the Hard Sell

As soon as word got out that the district was eyeing two schools for closure, folks from the Keplar community started gearing up for battle. Petitions were created, Facebook groups formed, and public outrage incited.  A community meeting has been scheduled for Monday, and Mrs. Patti is already on the agenda for the BOE meeting later in the week (December 3 @ the Charles Fuller Board Room & Training Center at 6PM.)  Although closure discussions will not resume until January, I’d imagine scores of parents will be in attendance to voice concerns now, and those, who don’t speak, will support the cause by putting the stank-eye on Director Starnes, who’ll be expecting as much.

I mean no one thought Keplar would take the news lying down.  That’s not how they roll.

Unlike other small rural communities, who may lack political clout and be virtually powerless against such actions, Keplar folks have always had access to a large network of supporters, a knack for organizing on short notice, and a simple willingness to raise all sorts of hell.  As I recall, last time the district made noise about shutting the school down, it was Momma-n-em who mobilized a hoard of angry matrons and marched over to Rogersville in an ominous cloud of Virginia Slim cigarette smoke – 50+ of them, all full of piss and vinegar – pitchforks raised and torches burning.  Okay, it may not have happened exactly like that, but the reality was closer than you’d think – and I’m nearly certain Aunt Bert did threaten to slap the Superintendent of Schools plumb into next Sunday, then slap him again right before Church, so she could ask the Lord for forgiveness on both sins all at once.

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Once upon a time,  the Hawkins County K-12 preliminary budget had an enormous deficit…

This is a familiar story, isn’t it?  Our school system tells it once a year.  In fact,  the telling is almost a late Summer tradition.  Of course, you never know how the annual deficit story will end.  During some budget years, the acting Director heroically balances the budget with all numbers perfectly in place <wink, wink> and no tax increase required.  Other years, the process becomes a horror story for all involved.

This year’s budget, I think, will be one of those horrifying tales.

The  system started the process back in June with a proposed deficit of $4.5 million.  Newly appointed Director of Schools Steve Starnes subsequently whittled that amount down to slightly over $2 million.  He did this by making steep cuts in some areas and transferring other expenses to categories involving federal funds. (Cuts include the elimination of 13 teacher positions, six of which were actual layoffs and seven open positions that weren’t filled, a reduction of teacher attendance incentive bonuses by $97,900 and elimination of several freshman coaches and other support staff from high school athletics totaling $47,673.)   The system now proposes to eliminate the remaining deficit by paying $1.068 million from the reserve and requesting a 12-cent property tax increase to fund the remaining $1.012 million.

Not all Board of Education members were thrilled with the final figures; however, Starnes was adamant that he and his staff have eliminated everything they can without affecting student programs.  So, the budget was approved by the BOE and will go before the Hawkins County Commission on August 25 @ 7:00 p.m.

I do not expect an easy passage. The Sheriff’s Department and other county agencies are expected to seek  substantial increases as well.  Consequently, this year’s budget process may be even worse than last year’s when the BOE’s controversial funding shift,  hefty IRS fines, and problems with the salary scale brought things to a screeching halt,  placed state funding at risk, and nearly caused the sky over Hawkins County to split open and rain a plague of  toads, locusts, and Democrats down upon the people.  Okay, it wasn’t THAT bad.  But the process was less than pleasant.

I predict that this year will be more of the same.  The budget will be sent back to the BOE with the same side-eye given to the system’s highest-paid employees – the central office administrators.   (SEE LIST OF Central Office Positions and Salaries)   I also think, because a tax increase is on the table, citizens and county leaders are going to be giving those top-level positions a closer look than before. County Commissioner Danny Alvis has already asked Starnes if our system administrators are mandated positions.  According to Starnes, while the state does not require those positions, they do recommend the number of supervisors, and, based on those numbers, Hawkins County is already understaffed in the Central Office by five.  Those remaining are, according to Starnes, essential to operations.

But who, specifically, are they?  The Tennessee Department of Education? Some other agency? Where can I find those recommendations? In the BEP funding formulas? Do they also have recommendations for classroom and instructional staffing/finance?  Do we follow those recommendations as well?  How do we prioritize classroom, instructional and non-instructional recommendations?  And do we adjust our budget accordingly?  Are we spending public monies in areas that will  increase the level of student performance?  I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions, and herein lies the problem.  Parents and taxpayers are at an informational disadvantage that makes it impossible to reconcile what SYSTEM SAYS with what WE SEE.

What WE SEE are overburdened teachers and schools struggling to do more with less.  We see  classes with too few textbooks and students losing instructional time to testing.  We see assessment programs, vendors and state-preferred service providers changing constantly – while other programs fall by the wayside after we’ve paid for training  and implementation or they become liabilities because the cost of administration outweighs or diminishes any benefits.  We SEE HCK12 entering into employment contracts for high-paid positions without a budget in place and then turning around and making cuts in areas that directly impact the student experience.

What We SEE is a trend of growth on the top and a crumbling at the bottom.  No one seems to consider the possibility that the bottom is crumbling under the weight of the top.  Our board representatives are far too busy addressing (or being sidetracked by)  less important (imo) issues.

I know cuts are difficult, and I don’t envy Starnes’ position.  But I do think  if you’re going to ask residents in a county – where the per capita income is approximately $20,000 and over 20% of our population is so far below the poverty line that they can’t even jump up and see middle class – to support a tax increase, then you’re obligated to consider all options, including streamlining your management team.  So, I would the challenge the Board of Education Members and Director Starnes to evaluate the job description of each system administrator, define what that administrator contributes to the system, and determine if there is some duplication of responsibilities.  Then, address any overlaps or inefficiencies before any additional cuts are made at the classroom or instruction level.  I’d also encourage you – parents, guardians, taxpayers – to share your thoughts and opinions with your board members and commissioners.

Ask them questions.  Seek answers.  Get the details.   Be Specific.  Hold them Accountable.  Because if the board wants us to buy this year’s budget story without contention or controversy, then it needs to ring true.  Central Office Salaries

Picketing Parents

A group of approximately six parents picketed outside Hawkins Elementary School to protest the fact that 4th grade science teacher, Veleka Setsor, is still in the classroom.  (More photos here)  Setsor was charged last week with aggravated assault following an argument with her 18-year old daughter.  The Hawkins County school system, in compliance with Tennessee state law, is conducting an investigation into the matter.   Until the issue is resolved, an aide has been placed in the classroom with Setsor.

The small protest, however, is making big news.  A WJHL camera man was on-scene earlier.  According to one parent, WYCB has also agreed to cover the event.  Joel Spears from the Rogersville Review was also on hand with his camera.  And Jeff Bobo at the Times-News had a lengthy piece online this morning, although  I think the reference to Maintenance Supervisor Ralph Hurd, is out of place.  (Typically, maintenance supervisors are not protected by state tenure laws.)

Inside the building, things seemed to be business as usual.  Principal Barry Bellamy said a few of the children had noticed the protesters, but it didn’t seem to be creating a problem.

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The Death of Mr. Barrett

Ellis J. Barrett, 84, of Hawkins County died last Sunday (Oct. 12, 2008).

You probably don’t know Mr. Barrett, but he was a veteran of the U.S. Army, World War II. He was a machine gunner serving from 1943 through 1946 with the 41st Division, 162nd Infantry Regiment, Company D. He served as an infantry combat soldier in the South Pacific Theater, specifically the Philippine Islands, Biak Island and New Guinea and was a member of the occupational forces in Japan. During his service, he was the recipient of the Good Conduct Medal, A P Theater Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Ribbon, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, World War II Victory Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation and the Bronze Star medal.  After serving in World War II, he then served three years with the Army Reserves.

I just wanted to tell ya’ll this because I thought you ought to know.



Bruce Campbell and Senator Williams Hitch a Ride on the Starship Adventure

The H.B. Stamps Memorial Library hosted their summer reading program this past week. This year’s theme was Starship Adventure. On Thursday, the program welcomed special guests Bruce Campbell and Senator Mike Williams.

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