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Lindsey Has the Cart Ahead of the Horse

by Joe Sullivan

After 18 months in office, you'd think that school Superintendent Charles Lindsey would have come forward with a plan for progressing toward his mantra: an "internationally competitive school district." But instead of blueprints Lindsey's stock in trade of late has become brickbats for county commissioners who last year rejected funding for what he terms "baby steps" toward his vague goal. His political call to arms also includes an equally vague vow to take the funding issue directly to the voters via a referendum next year.

All of this is putting the proverbial cart ahead of the horse. And Lindsey's combativeness has so alienated virtually all county commissioners that the chances of their ever buying into whatever he may propose have been jeopardized. So why is the embattled superintendent proceeding in this fashion?

"Pure frustration in trying to provide an internationally competitive school district and do it in a timely fashion," Lindsey says. "In approaching this school year's budget, I explained the needs of the district to the county executive and every county commissioner and presented them with three basic options: (1) giant steps that would take an additional $20 million; (2) baby steps, $10 million; and (3) a desperately needed $8 million just for continuation of existing programs. And what did commission do? It passed a $5.3 million increase in our funding [to $272 million] which was the least amount in 10 years.

"They haven't left us much of an option but to marshal our school family, which is 7,000 employees. Yes, that's threatening...but I am going to provide an internationally competitive school district with or without County Commission. That's why I'm encouraging our people to become politically active, to look very seriously at running for office and to employ strategies that other communities have used such as political action committees..."

Especially in the absence of any clear enunciation of his lofty goals, Lindsey's saber rattling couldn't be more ill timed. It comes in the midst of an independent audit of school system efficiency that follows closely on the heels of revelations that some $1 million was squandered on wasted food and mistaken payment of health insurance premiums. Even within the school system, there's a widespread perception in the field that its central office is bloated. There is also concern that its business management is in the hands of former educators who personify the good-old-boy network and the Peter Principle rolled into one. Lindsey would do well, when the audit findings are released at the end of February, to follow the example of UT president J. Wade Gilley by evidencing administrative streamlining before pursuing a quest for additional funds.

Gilley, who took office at the same time as Lindsey in the summer of 1999, also did a much better job of moving quickly to establish tangible goals (e.g. making UT one of the top 25 public research universities). When one thinks of international competitiveness, the first thing that comes to mind is how badly U.S. high school students lag behind their European and East Asian counter parts on math and science achievement tests. Yet Lindsey's baby steps consisted mainly of kindergarten and elementary school enhancements in other areas, and he's failed to make it clear how these relate to math and science achievement or any other standard.

Lindsey says he'll have a task force "hammer it all out line item by item." Then, by the end of the school year, "We'll be able to say it's going to cost x dollars more per child and that translates into x cents on the property tax rate, and we can submit that to a referendum."

Along with being laggard in defining his program, Lindsey doesn't appear to have paid much attention to the process of getting it approved. As he envisions it, the electorate would be asked to approve a tax increase—something that most county commissioners pledged not to do for the next three years when they narrowly approved the largest property tax increase in recent history in 1999. But he seems unaware of the fact that the county charter precludes putting a property tax increase on the ballot.

Moreover, by taking an adversarial posture toward County Commission, Lindsey has impaired prospects for what could have been a harmonious transfer of school taxing authority from commission to his supportive school board. Both in 1999 and again last year, a majority of county commissioners of all stripes appeared receptive to letting the school board have its own taxing authority, thus removing its dependency on commission for school funding. County Executive Tommy Schumpert was also favorably disposed to this transfer of taxing authority (as long as it was limited to the school's operating budget and did not impinge on the county's singular control over debt incurred for capital outlays). Such a transfer, Schumpert and many county commissioners reasoned, would remove public confusion over whom to hold accountable for school spending. As it stands, commission must approve all school spending but has no say over how the funds get spent, which is the exclusive province of the school board.

Enabling state legislation is needed for the transfer of taxing authority to take place, and school board members met with members of the Knox County legislative delegation in December to seek support of it. But County Commission's concurrence will be required for that support to be forthcoming, and as of now, it's waning. "Lindsey has poisoned the well," says Commissioner John Griess.

Lindsey's critics say he'd rather pick a fight and lose than seek the proverbial win-win situation. So the closest thing to a referendum on an internationally competitive school district could turn out to be next year's school board elections between supportive incumbents and challengers opposed to higher taxes and to Lindsey's combative style.

January 25, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 4
© 2001 Metro Pulse