By Steve Hunley, Publisher

Last week I happened to be listening to the Hallerin Hill program, although I will confess it is not a program I listen to often.  Hallerin Hilton Hill that morning had a premise that was actually interesting; he was inviting callers to share their views on the national debt.  Mr. Hill himself declared he wanted to see people elected to Congress who will cut spending and work to erase the national debt.  I was quite interested to hear Hallerin Hill take a position that is, I think, both responsible and wise.

Yet it occurred to me neither Hallerin Hilton Hill nor many others in Knox County seem to feel remotely threatened by Knox County’s own burgeoning debt.  Currently, if one includes interest payments, Knox County is more than $1 billion in debt.  Many of the same folks who caution us about the very real dangers posed by the national debt are strangely unconcerned about about Knox County’s own debt.  The local media has taken an attitude of pretending it doesn’t exist, not because they don’t know about it, but because if the general populace actually got worried about the local debt situation, it would undermine their support for increasing taxes.  That is especially true where our own school system is concerned.

Superintendent of Schools James McIntyre asked last year for new money that would have required a 35 cent increase in the property tax.  McIntyre will doubtless ask for more new money this year, which would also require a tax increase.  Acknowledging Knox County’s debt problem would sure make it awfully hard to continue throwing roses in the path of Superintendent James McIntyre.

Dr. McIntyre has shown little interest in those things that aren’t grand or glorious.  There is clearly a problem with many teachers being evaluated outside their own field, yet there is no indication the Superintendent finds this to be a problem.  Somehow, I rather doubt Dr. McIntyre would enjoy his being evaluated by the Board of Education as a carpenter or brick mason, much less by the County Commission than the Board of Education.  Yet many educators, guidance counselors art teachers, and music directors are being evaluated as if they were math or science teachers.  McIntyre hasn’t bothered to ask the legislature to fix the problem, which has been acute for some educators.  McIntyre’s bonus program has been extended to the point where the criteria has been watered down so more educators can qualify for it, making it far less impressive as a standard.

Driver’s Ed is being offered at about half of Knox County’s high schools, while parents at the other high schools have to dig into their pockets to send their kids to private classes if they want to get the insurance discount.  Is it fair or equal? No.  But McIntyre defends it on the basis of his giving principals the right to decide how they were going to spend money at their respective schools when we were experiencing yet another of the frequent fiscal crises.  Despite getting millions more in tax dollars (including a $14 million windfall that was spent in a night), only Board of Education Mike McMillan has had the temerity to suggest the program be restored to every school.

The second annual State of the Schools address will probably be less a report card on how our children are learning and just how our schools rate than allowing Dr. McIntyre to tell us just how good everything is, but that he also needs more of our money to do still more.  Anyone who believes the information related by Dr. McIntyre on these occasions isn’t filtered for public consumption is likely still waiting patiently for the Easter Bunny to drop by with a splendid basket of goodies.  For instance, McIntyre focuses on the improved graduation rate, while failing to acknowledge the statistics that reveal how few of our students are prepared to go on to college.  Those numbers are nothing less than abysmal.  The best numbers come from Farragut High School and those indicate only 42% of students graduating are ready to attend college, yet the increase in the percentage of those students graduating is being hailed as an accomplishment akin to discovering a cure for cancer.  Does it really matter how many students are graduating when so few are ready to go to college and become productive taxpaying citizens?  Some of the numbers in our high schools are in the single digits and it is just about impossible to make the case that more money solves every problem as these statistics don’t verify that assumption.

Since President Lyndon B. Johnson began his war on poverty, the United States has invested some $17 trillion via 80 odd programs to combat poverty and expand the entitlement programs into a way of life for many people.  That figure, incidentally, is almost identical to America’s debt.  Clearly, pouring more money into any department or agency isn’t the answer and that includes the schools.  McIntyre cries we must “invest” in our schools and currently the Knox County School system spends more than half a billion dollars a year.  That would seem like a healthy investment to me.

Local governments have important ties to both state and federal governments; localities have become dependent upon funding from both state and federal governments.  Our country has seen the debt of state and local governments rise as laws are mandated without money to implement the new programs; local governments find themselves accepting “grant” money that eventually runs  out and that department or agency must find a way to keep the program alive.  McIntyre started a new program, taking the supposedly best teachers and making them trainers for other teachers. As I have said before, it is an odd concept to take the best players off a team and turn them into coaches and worse still, McIntyre used non-recurring funding to pay for the program.  Of course he will urge the County Commission to find more money to make it permanent.

McIntyre gives a certain class of people in this county the quivers because he’s seen as some sort of visionary, yet his reign has produced less in terms of real achievement than a huge appetite for more taxpayer dollars.  There is little evidence to suggest Dr. McIntyre and the school administration even lives in the real world.  None of these people seem to realize, care or even give a hoot about the county’s debt or the financial pressures experienced by the State of Tennessee.  Yet, none of the business people who get the quivers from Dr. McIntyre’s grand ideas would run their own businesses by spending more while the debt continues to grow.  None of these quiverers who so righteously point out the dangers of the national debt are issuing similar warnings for Knox County; in fact, most jump right on the bandwagon without the slightest hesitation.  They solemnly intone we must do “what is right”, which is usually code for it’s really unpopular, the people are opposed to it, but we want to do it any way.  And oddly, “the right thing” always seems to involve picking the pockets of the average person.  The Knoxville News-Sentinel has regularly scolded Knoxvillians and Knox Countians they should be willing to pay more, yet did you know there is no tax on advertising?  None.  Not a penny.  How much do you suppose it would generate for Tennessee and local governments to apply the sales tax to advertising?  Print, radio, and television.

I’d be willing to pay it via The Focus, but my guess is that suggestion isn’t going to make it to the Hallerin Hill show, nor will you see an editorial in The Sentinel that they are willing to pay their fair share.  That would give them a serious case of the Wobbly Cobbles and it’s much easier to support the notion of taking your money instead.