By Steve Hunley
Mayor Tim Burchett has always liked the imagery of being the white knight arriving just in the nick of time to save the damsel in distress. It seems to be a scenario Burchett simply cannot resist. The latest episode of the intrepid Burchett’s hurrying to the rescue comes at the detriment of five members of the Knox County Board of Education and Superintendent Bob Thomas. Burchett is offering a one-time “grant” of $650,000 to be matched by the school system from its reserve funds. Burchett’s proposal would restore funding to Project Grad and magnet programs at Sarah Moore Greene and Green Elementary Schools. Burchett has also called for the board of education to develop a plan to evaluate and review the magnet and Project Grad programs.
To better understand this situation, one has to go back to the reign of Superintendent Jim McIntyre and his continual overspending of the school budget. During the last two years of his administration, McIntyre overspent by as much as $30 million. Desperate for money, McIntyre was forced to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Burchett and the county commission for the school system to live within its means. Always opposed to increasing taxes, Burchett accomplished a significant achievement in reigning in McIntyre’s financial excesses. Superintendent Bob Thomas, faced with a $3.5 million shortfall this year, kept faith in recommending cuts to both Project Grad and the magnet school programs. Faced with the fact 89% of those students attending magnet schools read “below proficiency” Thomas concluded the programs were not working and need to be reconstituted. Thomas was keeping faith with the new reality the school system faced with the implementation of the MOU and Burchett’s insistence the schools live within their means.
None of the members of the board of education relished the idea of cutting much of anything, but five eventually agreed they had to pass a budget. Most believed it would be fruitless to attempt to appeal to Burchett and the county commission for additional funding. Apparently, those board members like Gloria Deathridge were right about approaching the mayor and county commission for more money when faced with a shortfall. Burchett’s explanation for the grant rings hollow. The Superintendent and a majority of the board have already evaluated both Project Grad and the magnet program and found them wanting at the least. Certainly, the superintendent and board felt these programs needed an overhaul to work better for all concerned. Burchett was also careful to give the “credit” for the grant to county commission Chair Randy Smith, a candidate for reelection this year and a Burchett employee. The mayor never explained just why he would dole out $650,000 in taxpayer money at the behest of one member of the 11-member county commission.
Nor will Tim Burchett be mayor a year from now when the county mayor’s office will supposedly review the new evaluation process to see if Project Grad and the magnet school programs deserve continued funding. Most of Burchett’s staff will likely be scattered all across the globe by this time next year. The odds-on-favorite to succeed Burchett is Glenn Jacobs. Jacobs appears to be the genuine article, an articulate conservative who means what he says. Unlike Burchett, Glenn Jacobs has had a successful career in both business and entertainment. Burchett is too cunning a politician not to realize all he has done by offering the one-time money is to kick the can down the road, leaving it all in the lap of the next mayor. Contrary to the notion the public conversation needs to be extended, the process of arriving at cuts was painful for both Superintendent Bob Thomas and the board, yet a majority upheld the principle of living within their means and supported the MOU proposed by none other than Tim Burchett. Burchett’s entire proposal accomplishes little except for extending the life of two programs for another year and giving the appearance of having done something. In reality, it is the soup made from the shadow of a crow that starved to death.
Burchett, a career-politician, has flourished by appearing to be precisely what he isn’t; with his latest political sleight of hand, Burchett has served notice he remains anything but a statesman and certainly not a man of the people. It was a cruel thing to break faith with those who had kept their word and faith with him and the county commission.
I will hazard one prediction: the school system will be in worse trouble next year and come this time next year, the most popular public figure in this county won’t be Tim Burchett, but Glenn Jacobs.
Oh, and one more thing. There’s an old saying in politics: “when you try to be all things to all people you wind up being nothing to nobody.”