Perhaps it’s appropriate that the school board and school administration officials are bogged down in a very academic question, the outcome of which they hope will mean more money for the operation of Metro schools.
Faced with the news that the upcoming budget year beginning in July probably won’t offer Metro’s public schools any additional money, school board members are starting to make what one Metro Legal Department attorney calls ”a unique creative argument.“
Dusting off a 1981 letter from the Legal Department to then-Mayor Dick Fulton and other administration officials, school board members are considering trying to force Metro’s general government to take over funding of the pension plan for teachers. After all, the letter says that the burden for funding those pension payments ”rests with the Metropolitan government as an obligation of the General Services District.“
Some school officials view the 19-year-old letter as a possible smoking gun. Not only may it lift the burden of funding $8 million to $9 million in pension payments this year from schools, it may also be a vehicle for the school system to recoup lost funds retroactively. As they see it, that could mean more money for the classroom.
”We’re looking at a very, very difficult budget year. This is a way in which we may be able to significantly minimize the adverse affect of the budget crisis on our children,“ says school board member Patricia Crotwell, conceding that ”this is something that has simply been mentioned at this point.“
School board members aren’t getting their hopes up, but they see the issue as something to explore if it could mean money for actually educating students. Reaping more money is the best-case scenario, says board member Dave Shearon. ”It’s one of those things that’s just kind of out there. This could turn out to be simply an exercise in bookkeeping.“
Legal Department officials agree with the school board on one point: They still think that funding the teacher pension plan is an obligation of Metro government. But after all, they say, the Metro government funds the school system, whose money comes from designated tax levies. So, as Metro Legal sees it, there’s no smoking gun.
”It is right,“ Metro Legal Department attorney Leslie Shechter says of the 1981 letter. ”The Metro Council, in passing the budget, approves the payment of the teacher pension plan.“ But, she says, ”over and above the amount approved for the pension plan as part of the school board budget, the board is requesting that Metro should provide additional fundsor fund the pension plan separate and apart from the school board budget.“ That’s the part Metro oppposes.
Metro Finance Director David Manning says the burden for funding the pension plan would fall on Metro only if the school system somehow defaulted. ”The solution to this is not to play games in the matter in which it is funded,“ Manning says. ”It is an education funding issue and it’s an important one.“
As is too often the case, the very discussion of transferring the burden of the pension payments has pitted Metro against the school board. Even though the schools’ budget accounts for more than a quarter of the city’s more than $1 billion budget, school officials perennially contend the system is underfunded, which is probably accurate.
True to the mentality of us versus them, the school board last week even asked Metro’s attorneys to write an opinion about whether it’s a conflict of interest for the Legal Department to offer an opinion about who should fund the teacher pension plan.
”We don’t, at this point, believe we have a conflict,“ says Shechter, who describes the school system as a ”constituent entity“ of Metro government, which receives representation from the Metro Legal Department. ”They cannot sue the Metropolitan government,“ she adds.
A preacher's parody
Most successful politicians appreciate a good joke when they see one and are intelligent enough that sometimes they can even make up their own. Amazingly enough, Mayor Bill Purcell has a knack for fashioning gut busters about the inefficiency of Metro government. And despite his sometimes stuffy exterior, his predecessor Phil Bredesen could write jokes that would make Letterman jealous.
It’s difficult to become a successful politician, however, when you are the joke. Once again, that’s what Baptist preacher Paul Durhamwho has been so desperate to break into local politics that he almost humiliated himself with a run for mayor last summerhas found himself.
Durham, the chairman of Metro’s Traffic and Parking Commission, who may well lie awake at night fretting that someone somewhere is having a good time, didn’t do himself any favors this week on the talk-radio program Teddy Bart’s Roundtable as he waxed righteously about a disturbing rumor he’d heard that Opry Mills was going to feature a gigantic adult book store.
This diatribe went on for a while, until finally, the show’s producer apparently told Durham and the rest of the roundtable that, in fact, the ”rumor“ had been the subject of the Scene’s parody column, ”The Fabricator,“ some weeks earlier.
Perhaps now Durham is trying to get to the bottom of a recent ”Fabricator“ report that the St. Louis Rams gave the Super Bowl game ball to Jesus. The report includes a quote from Jesus that the ”member of the Holy Trinity“ was ”looking forward“ to showing off the ball to Satan.
Call Liz at 244-7989, ext. 406, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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