When Phil Bredesen was mayor, the worst that could be said about him was the he suffered from “shiny object syndrome.”
Bored by the tedium of much of government, and blessed with a personality profile given to risk-taking and entrepreneurship, his attention often drifted to the latest great idea. Bredesen’s joy came by driving the engine of government into places it usually never went. We wound up with a dramatically altered city.
Bill Purcell, by contrast, is not one to leap into things willy-nilly. He is cautious. He likes to think things through. He asks questions ad infinitum, then asks a few more. He studies, he plans, he looks ahead. Whereas Bredesen’s fancies were fun to be a part of, Purcell’s relentlessness and single-mindedness can drive aides insane. He has been known to pepper staff with questions until they drop. He can be prickly, loquacious, protective of his political hide and occasionally more than willing to place the knife squarely in the enemy’s back. But he’s no idiot. The man makes very few mistakes. And, by the way, these qualities work to the betterment of the city’s bureaucracy.
What, therefore, explains the mayor’s willingness to endure public scorn by proposing cuts to the city’s public education budget? Why in the world would he throw himself in the path of what appears to be an incredibleand buildingpublic outcry for more school funding? For what discernable reason would he risk his political reputation by cutting teachers and assistant principals when he has been in the vanguard for so many years of doing the opposite? (Remember “The education mayor?”)
Purcell must have a plan, right?
That would be yes.
Backtrack to last year, when it became apparent that a financial squeezeincreasing costs in a number of local services and lower sales tax revenueswas taking root. As one month’s lower-than-expected revenues turned into two months and then a trend, Purcell got moving. After his dark master of the numbers (finance chief David Manning) assured him things were screwed, the mayor asked Metro departments (schools excepted) to propose spending cuts in the 10 to 15 percent range. Doing this a full six months before the budget was to be proposed inoculated him from critics who might have suggested he was blindsiding them. To schools officials he said: Cut by 3 percent. Of course, because previously conducted long-range planning called for school funding to increase significantly (to $538 million next year from this year’s $503 million), the 3 percent cuts really mean something much larger.
Purcell could have exempted schools altogether, but he didn’t. Why? The most obvious reason is that all organizations, private or public, benefit from an occasional roughing-up. That is, if you cut a few things here and there, shake the bureaucracy up with a few mild reductions, then, generally speaking, an organization finds itself operating more efficiently.
But Purcell is probably being driven by more than operating efficiencies. Politics and policy also enter into the mix. Pedro Garcia, Republican-leaning schools director, has thus far shown two straight years of improvement in Metro schools by plucking the low-hanging fruit. Still, last year’s testing gains were nothing to write home about. And school officials are probably bracing themselves to see no gains at all when students test again next month.
The reaction of the body politic when that happens won’t be positive. Voters may express understandable concern that they’ve spent a lot on schools and seen little in return. Purcell himself has steered more new money into schools than any other mayoral administration in this city’s history. Bottom line: Purcell may very well have an exposed flank.
To top it off, five new school board members are up for reelection in August, which Purcellin his forecasting brillianceknows may fan the flames of a backlash. Should the test results come in low, and public animosity begin to crescendo, then anti-tax sentimentwhich was the huge undercurrent of last year’s Metro Council racescould very well result in highly bifurcated campaigns for the open school board seats.
One slate of candidates will probably vow to throw more money at the system, and another slate will vow to stop the tax-and-spend madness. The anti-tax candidates will promise to bring a sense of proper business management and stewardship to the system. The pro-spend candidates will contend that things don’t just get better overnight, and that we’re on the verge of reaping the rewards of our investments.
If you listen to those positions closely, you’ll realize Purcell is on both sides of the aisle. He’s pledging good management and proper stewardship. He’s also decidedly pro-education, and the additional spending was his idea to begin with.
As we look at the situation, we figure Purcell is not likely to gut the school system to a point where it will fail. He’s been far too dedicated to public education throughout his career. By spending so much time in government and politics, he’s mature enough to know that the current brouhaha over budget cuts may not amount to much in the broader sweep of time. “Our budget process needs to be used to advance our cause over years, not simply months or weeks, or a single school term,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “I know some have either misunderstood or worked to mischaracterize the process and the purpose. In a political system, I have come to understand, that is one predictable if emotionally painful outcome of most education funding discussions.”
Purcell is fine with taking a short-term hit. In the long-term, he figures he and the schools will come out all right too.