By Steve Hunley

Last week’s editorial “Are they Planning to Pick Your Pockets? Beware of Indexed Annual Tax Increases” brought a letter from Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas that starts off as follows:

“One of your recent editorials had some ‘alternative facts’ I wanted to bring to your attention. As a wise man once observed, we are all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts.”

I am printing and replying to Mr. Thomas’ letter in its entirety and you, the readers, may determine precisely who is using “alternative facts.” You can read his letter verbatim here.

Here is the sentence recommended by Superintendent Thomas for approval by the Knox County Board of Education at a recent meeting as a legislative priority:

“The board opposes the state requirement that the net tax revenues be the same before and after quadrennial property reappraisals, which over an extended period of time, forces the property tax rate down to unacceptable levels. Rather than being forced to raise the tax rate periodically, county commissioners should be given the option to lower it.”

This was the language I described as “artful doublespeak” and the sort of thing only a “pluperfect bureaucrat” could conceive of in an attempt to deceive the public. Read those two sentences again, very carefully. The property tax falls to “unacceptable levels”—unacceptable to who exactly? Note the language admits “the state requirement that the net tax revenues be the same before and after quadrennial property tax reappraisals.” Ask yourself just precisely how the property tax falls consistently when state law requires it to remain the same unless county commission votes to increase the property tax.

Thomas continued in his letter to the editor:

“The Knox County Board of Education is not asking the state legislature to ‘index property taxes.’ I’m aware of no school board member who is asking that property taxes be raised even by the rate of inflation. We’re simply asking that the tax rate not be forcibly cut every four years when property is reappraised.”

This topic was under discussion at the most recent Joint Education Committee meeting and was clearly about increasing revenue for the school system, which means raising taxes. Thomas is correct inasmuch as some property values increase, others decrease, which is why the overall reappraisals must remain revenue neutral. During that meeting Thomas said one failing of the current arrangement is, “It’s not indexed for inflation.” Thomas complained that the existing state law “doesn’t have any growth potential” and “…it says essentially, schools don’t get access to these additional resources our community develops over time…” Thomas once again referenced growth, saying, “…just if it were indexed for inflation alone it would be millions and millions of dollars by now that are not available to our public services that we do.” Thomas said state legislators were being encouraged to offer an amendment to pending legislation that would, in effect, result in tax increases.

Board of education member Lynne Fugate said she believed the existing law remains on the books because “nobody ever raises taxes.” Thomas did suggest putting a ceiling on the amount property taxes could rise and mused about “the amount of inflation plus a point.” (Doesn’t this sound like indexing to you?) And if anyone still doubts the entire point of this was not to raise taxes, Thomas acknowledged there might be opposition to the amendment from “folks who are Tea Party-inclined” or “deficit hawks in the legislature” who would not look with favor upon an effort to raise property taxes “through the back door” but was hopeful a compromise could be reached. Thomas reiterated his complaint, “You’re not even capturing inflation” with the existing law and noted “it’s tens of millions of dollars.” Fugate suggested helpfully perhaps the amendment could have the language indexing something to inflation. Yet Thomas isn’t aware of any board member, much less himself, who constantly referred to cost of living, inflation or the like. See for yourself, you can watch the video of the Joint Education Committee meeting here:

As just stated, Thomas presented this idea at the Joint Education Committee under the pretense of politically protecting county commissioners from having to raise taxes, which is a little bit like a squadron of randy soldiers bursting into the temple of vestal virgins, saying they were there to protect the virtue of the virgins.

Buzz Thomas, in his letter to the editor, took issue with my statement that teachers received a 6% raise last year. Thomas wrote:

“Teachers did not get a 6% pay raise last year. They got 3%. We’re trying to get them 4% this year. The cost would be divided between us and the state. When the state says they are giving teachers a 3% raise, their funding formula requires Knox Countians to pay more than half of it. So instead of a 12% raise over two years as you stated, it would be about half that amount. That’s pretty reasonable given when it comes to teacher pay. Equally important to us this year is raising the pay of our “non-certified” staff such as teaching assistants and cafeteria workers. Current wages for these folks are shamefully low.”

Thomas is exactly right about the “shamefully low” salaries for non-certified personnel, such as secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers and the like, whose needs have been consistently ignored by the school administration for the last nine years. Thomas is also right inasmuch as the taxpayers of Knox County must pay more than half of any raise given by the State of Tennessee. What Buzz Thomas fails to point out is the reason why we must pick up that expense; it is because we are considerably over the number of positions the State of Tennessee will pay for. For decades we have been well over the number of positions the state will pay for, costing Knox County taxpayers the full cost of those additional employees as well as absorbing the full cost of any raise given locally. Nor does Thomas mention the 800-lb gorilla in the room: the automatic annual step raises, which are pretty good especially when compared to the raises, if any, enjoyed by the people who pick up the tab for these raises. The fact is, irrespective of who pays for the raise – – – and Knox Countians are also state taxpayers, as well as federal taxpayers – – – the raises are closer to the figure cited in my editorial last week than a mere 3%.  It would be only 3% if one didn’t realize the vast majority of teachers also received an average automatic annual step raise of 3%. 3 + 3 = 6. Having attended Ritta Elementary School, I was taught that 3 + 3 always equals 6 and I am presuming it still does. Of course pluperfect bureaucrats were likely taught the new math, which seems to be slicker than a water slide at Dollywood.

Much to the surprise of Mayor Tim Burchett, Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas announced he was proposing a 4% pay increase for teachers this year, which when added to the average annual automatic 3% step raise equals 7%. Again resorting to my Ritta Elementary School training, 4 + 3 = 7. To continue our math lesson, the 6% pay raise of last year added to a proposed 7% pay raise for this year equals 13%. So, I will candidly confess I was wrong. I missed the pay increase totals for the vast majority of certified personnel in the school system by a whisker. It would amount to 13% rather than the 12%, which I stated in last week’s editorial. You have my sincerest apologies. I was wrong on the low side.

I also noticed Thomas did not deny he intended to take one-time money from the state to provide the raises, meaning those dollars remain in the school system’s budget until the end of time.

Buzz Thomas also wrote:

“The Board of Education is guilty neither of ‘artful doublespeak’ or being ‘pluperfect bureaucrats.’ They are hard-working citizen legislators who are trying to help Knox Countians build the best school system in the south. Not so we can pat ourselves on the back. So our children and grandchildren will have the kind of future they deserve.”

I never accused the board of education of “artful doublespeak” or being “pluperfect bureaucrats;” I accused whoever wrote the language approved by the board (except for Mike McMillan) of artful doublespeak and being a pluperfect bureaucrat. Go back and read Thomas’ words again cited in this editorial and see if you think it is direct, straightforward, or if you can even discern its meaning. Does it strike you as being artful doublespeak? It sounds exactly like that to me.

Watch the meeting of the Joint Education Committee, much of which has been quoted in this editorial and consider the governor’s recent action in amending legislation (which Buzz Thomas predicted at that meeting) to allow cities and counties to raise the property tax, sales tax, and just about every other tax you can think of. Supposedly this new power to raise all these taxes locally is hidden in a mass transit bill in the state legislature. But remember one thing in this particular conversation is that while the proposed gas tax increase is ostensibly a “dedicated” tax, the legislature in the past found a way to raid it and use it for purposes other than transportation. It’s foolish to think the same thing won’t happen locally.

Thomas concluded his letter to the editor with the following:

“Many thanks for giving education the attention it deserves.”

It sure does deserve some attention and I stand by last week’s publisher’s position.

In conclusion, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I support teachers. I always have and always will. I’m proud to say that no other media outlet in Knox County has supported teachers more than The Knoxville Focus over the last fifteen years. What I do not support are high level unelected bureaucrats playing hide and seek with proposed tax increases and shell games with budget numbers.