By Vinay Bhagat
The Sevierville Board of Education met Thursday night to discuss the financial crisis that is ailing Sevier County. The crisis stems from an inadequate amount of federal funding to build and maintain new school facilities. The lack of funding comes at a difficult time, considering that there is an immediate need to allocate over twenty million dollars to construct, renovate, complete, and expand a group of primary and middle schools including Pittman Elementary School, Kellum Creek Elementary, Pigeon Forge High School, and Boyd’s Creek Elementary.
The crux of the financial crisis is simple: while Sevier County recognizes the need to allocate the twenty million dollars, none of the members belonging to the Board of Education can reach a consensus regarding where to derive these funds. The money is budgeted. The money is needed. However, the money- totaling $20,800,000.00- isn’t readily available.
The fact that Sevier County can’t meet its immediate educational funding needs isn’t a matter of economics, but rather, politics. The County’s tax revenue must first go the State government, where the money is re-allocated, often inequitably, between other cities and counties. As a result, the tremendous tax revenue that county businesses produce doesn’t always return the county.
According to Jack Parton, Director of Schools for Sevier County, “You’ve got thirty-eight million dollars in tax revenue, and that’s more than the entire budget of most counties, but sometimes, we only see a fraction of that money return.” Parton went on to suggest that one possible remedy for fixing the county’s political problems was to send a “high-powered lobbyist to Nashville” to fight tooth and nail for the priorities of the county.
Many in attendance responded to Parton’s comments favorably, citing that tremendous expansion and population growth has led to crowding, additional capital requirements for new school buildings, and funding for student initiative programs in what has now become the eleventh largest school district in the State of Tennessee. But while the board members present were in full agreement with Parton, the shared sense of grief did not result in the creation of a solution to solve the financial crisis. Rather, the meeting itself had the feel of a pre-Revolutionary-War town hall meeting, where newly minted colonists might explore how to lay the foundations for a nascent democracy.
Then, Mayor Larry Waters arrived to the meeting to reiterate the primary problem at hand: that “Sevier County hadn’t been able to keep up with its own growth.” A solution was proposed by Mayor Waters that was certainly peaceable, and yet, bureaucratic in its nature. Waters’ solutions called for the board to divide the process of solving the financial crisis into two phases: phase one would involve deciding what the county could afford to spend without increasing property taxes, while phase two would involve generating legislative ideas to take to Nashville aimed at creating additional educational funding.
Somewhat lost in the proceedings was the immediacy required to fund, renovate, and build the schools.
The twenty million dollars remains budgeted, however, whether the city will spend the funds, or what fraction of this money will be spent, or whether the school facilities will be built at all, continues to remain in question.
As one Board of Education Member stated at the height of his frustration, referring to Sevier County receiving one of the lowest amounts of educational funding despite its record growth, “the whole damn thing is a Catch-22.”