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Seven Days

Wednesday, July 11
President George W. Bush taps Knoxville businessman and power-that-be Bill Baxter as his nominee to TVA's board of directors. Baxter, of course, is Bush's kind of guy—he runs Holston Gases, which makes him the closest to an oilman you're likely to find in these parts.
UT attorneys argue in court that artist Alan Zuniga is violating their copyrights with his paintings of Vol players, prominently displaying the trademarked letter "T." Next up in their sights: the state of Texas.

Thursday, July 12
Angry mobs of protesters break windows in the state Capitol building as legislators approve a Spartan no-new-taxes budget. Who do they think is going to pay for that glass?
UT attorneys reach a settlement with artist Alan Zuniga—he's now allowed to use the letter "T," but not the letters "J. Wade Gilley."

Friday, July 13
Mayor Victor Ashe is named to the board of Fannie Mae by President Bush. Headline writers somehow resist doing anything at all funny with the words "Ashe," "Bush" and "Fannie."

Monday, July 16
TDOT officials finally settle on a design for revamping Alcoa Highway. The new leg of the road will route traffic around the "Motor Mile" area, which has become congested by all the people driving cars there in order to, uh, buy more cars... In some view of the world, this is apparently a perfectly logical thing.

Tuesday, July 17
KnoxRecall members announce they don't have enough petition signatures to force a referendum on whether Mayor Victor Ashe and three Council members should stay in office. Metro Pulse editors and editorial cartoonists heave a sigh of relief—two more years of good material!
UT faculty members complain they are being excluded from Gov. Don Sundquist's search for a new university president. Sundquist staffers say they've never heard of a "UT faculty" and ask for proof of its existence.

Knoxville Found

(Click photo for larger image)

What is this? Every week in "Knoxville Found," we'll print the photo of a local curiosity. If you're the first person to correctly identify this oddity, you'll win a special prize plucked from the desk of the editor (keep in mind that the editor hasn't cleaned his desk in five years). E-mail your guesses, or send 'em to "Knoxville Found" c/o Metro Pulse, 505 Market St., Suite 300, Knoxville, TN 37902.

Last Week's Photo:
Not many people got this one, which might have something to do with the fact that you have to climb (or drive) a big ol' North Knoxville hill to get to it. It is the "donors' rock" on top of Sharp's Ridge, thanking those people who contributed to the founding of the park there. First right answer came from Michael Holtz, a marketing and PR specialist with St. Mary's Health Systems, just over the hill from the Ridge. He wins a velocirapturous press kit from the movie Jurassic Park III, complete with a dinosaur "Comparative Size Chart." Fun for the whole family!

Meet Your City
A calendar of upcoming public meetings you should attend

Monday, July 23
2 p.m.
City County Bldg., Large Assembly Room
400 Main St.
Regularly scheduled meeting

Tuesday, July 24
7 p.m.
City County Bldg., Large Assembly Room
400 Main St.
Regularly scheduled meeting.


Summertime Blues

School's out, but the school budget crisis continues

When members of the Knox County school board and school administration gathered for their annual retreat Monday morning in Townsend, a lot of words got thrown around the table: "Budget crisis," "state funding," "position cuts," "getting killed." But a few phrases were notably absent, phrases that have come to symbolize Superintendent Charles Lindsey's avowed agenda over the past two years—"internationally competitive" and "world-class."

Quizzed about the missing lingo during the lunch break, Lindsey chuckled ruefully. While he gave assurances that his plans to turn Knox County into a globe-beating education system are still on track, it was clear that local and state funding battles have taken their toll.

"My consternation is that since we started talking about a world-class school system, we have been receiving the lowest funding increases in 10 years," he said. "That bothers me."

There are those who might point to Lindsey's political strategies of the past year as partly responsible for his problems—after failing to get what he wanted from County Commission in 2000, he launched an all-out offensive against the funding body, rallying teachers and sending principals and school staffers to pack Commission meetings. This may not have accomplished much except anger some commissioners. But for anyone who's sat through multiple years of school board budget sessions, the discussion Monday sounded numbingly familiar. Whether the school board plays nice or plays rough, the bottom line always seems to be the same.

This year, Lindsey's recommended budget, which was approved by the board, asked for $287 million, a $13 million increase over last year. Instead, County Executive Tommy Schumpert proposed a sparing $280 million budget, an increase of just $6 million or about 2 percent. What's more, only half of that comes from local funds—the rest is an estimate of what the schools will end up getting from the state Legislature, whenever it and Gov. Don Sundquist can agree on a budget. Despite protests from Lindsey and school teachers, County Commission approved Schumpert's budget.

What that means in practical terms is that none of the new programs proposed in Lindsey's budget have any funding. That includes five new elementary art teachers (the school board hired 15 this year, and Lindsey wants to have 30—which would be approximately one for every two elementary schools) and adding staff to qualify for elementary-level accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In fact, once you add in state-mandated raises, the revenues don't even cover what Lindsey calls a "continuation budget."

One major element of the "continuation" package is 37 new positions in elementary and middle schools, which are required to meet state class-size guidelines mandated by the Basic Education Program. However, Lindsey noted the majority of school systems in the state have yet to meet those guidelines, and many school boards will probably apply for waivers. If the waivers aren't granted—and there's no indication yet they will be—the state Department of Education is supposed to fine school systems $50,000 for each position they fail to fill. (Needless to say, the fine is calculated to cost more than hiring a teacher.)

In the meantime, administrators say Knox County continues to lose experienced teachers who have been lured elsewhere by better salaries and perks. "We're getting killed on both fronts, teachers and administrators," Lindsey says. "They're getting recruited on the Internet now. You can imagine what they say to us when we go to recruit in Georgia."

Still, he pledges that in September, he will finally present his long-promised "template" for an internationally competitive school system. It is supposed to describe what such a system would look like, how Knox County can get there, and how much it would cost. If County Commission doesn't come through with funding for it. Lindsey is still contemplating taking the plan to the people via a referendum.

But first things first. As of this week, while they await news from Nashville, Knox County school board members don't even have a 2002 budget.

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

Heat Exhaustion

Countywide efficiency audit appears to be a dying concept

As the summer swelters slowly away, so apparently do the chances for the extension of an efficiency audit to all Knox County offices. County Executive Tommy Schumpert requested the audit to be done by McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy, following that firm's audit of the county school system, completed last spring.

The County Commission's agenda committee deferred Schumpert's request until August, but the longer the idea languishes, the less likely it is to be taken up, according to some members of Commission.

Schumpert says the $800,000-plus that was the estimated cost of the countywide audit was not included in the 2001-2002 budget, meaning it would have to be paid for from the county's "rainy day" fund balance. But, he says, he still believes it would be a good thing to have done and expects to take his request back to the agenda committee next month.

Frank Leuthold, a committee member, says the executive's request was put off for several reasons, not the least of which was that "there was a concern whether the school audit is going to pay off." He also says, "We won't know that by August." The school audit report suggested that the front office be reorganized, but its specifics were controversial and were in many instances contrary to the preconceived notions of some of the commissioners who wanted the audit done in the first place

Mary Lou Horner, who also serves on the agenda committee, says, "We were not real pleased with the schools study—several of us commissioners. We're not interested in spending more money with the same firm. We think it was money wasted." She also says the deferral was a polite way of saying no to Schumpert, who has said that the MJLM firm has already done some of the work necessary to a countywide audit and was therefore the logical choice.

Leuthold says he was not one who was disappointed with the school audit report, but he concedes that the postponement may mean the end of the concept. He indicated surprise that Schumpert may try again.

Schumpert says the initial critical need was for an efficiency audit of the Knox County Election Commission's offices. He says that the Election Commission requested and received budgeted funds for its own audit, which will likely not be conducted by MJLM.

"We want some one with election experience," says David Eldridge, chairman of the Election Commission, which has experienced myriad problems in conducting the last several elections. He says the commission asked for $77,000 for the audit "to determine the efficiency of our service delivery system" and for additional staff training. He says the commission got $62,000 "for which we are grateful" and will have to decide next month how "to make maximum use of the funds we've been allotted." He does say an efficiency audit there is a virtual certainty.

Horner believes the countywide audit would not show much, considering that the constitutional, or "fee" offices, whose heads are elected, "are checked by the state anyway" in annual audits.

Leuthold says those state audits do nothing, however, to assure that the fee offices are apprised of potential service efficiencies. He says he hopes that the County Commission-created citizen efficiency panel that recommended the school audit and has been generally supportive of a countywide audit will make its own recommendations as to improving the services of county offices.

Mike Hammond, the broadcasting company executive who has chaired the citizens' group, says he's talked with no one in county government about the panel's work or its recommendations for weeks and could not comment on the status of those recommendations.

Considering its lack of expertise and its constraints as far as the hours of study required to examine the entire county government structure in detail, the role of the citizen panel seems limited. Hammond has previously acknowledged those points. The next real test of efficiency in the county, then, may turn on the 2002 elections, when the voters will decide which officeholders are providing adequate services.

—Barry Henderson

July 19, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 29
© 2001 Metro Pulse