by Mel Griffith
Recently there has been a good deal of talk about the Bradley County School System, especially Bradley Central High School. Someone has even suggested that Bradley is so far behind that soon its graduates will not be able to find jobs.
In recent years Bradley County taxpayers have poured some $62 million into school building projects. That's in addition to the yearly operating budget of over $40 million. Yet over the same time period Bradley County's rank among the state's 138 school systems has fallen from 113 to 119. How could our ranking fall, when we have spent so much additional money? There are two explanations. The first is that the County system only got two-thirds of the money, the city of Cleveland got the other third. But the main explanation lies in the peculiar way the state calculates the rankings. They don't use all the figures. They only include operating expenses.
When local governments build new buildings, they typically borrow the money by issuing bonds and paying the bonds off over an extended period of time, in Bradley County's present case, 25 years. The annual bond payments on money borrowed for school buildings is an expense to the taxpayer for education just as much as salaries or utilities, but the state doesn't count these expenses in arriving at rankings. Thus the money we have spent to build new schools, expand and upgrade others doesn't help our state ranking. Of course, a lot of other counties and cities are also paying off school buildings and that isn't counted in their ranking either, so I have no idea whether Bradley County really ranks higher or lower than 119. What I do know is that any similarity between the rank sent out by the state and the real rank is pure coincidence.
There is nothing wrong with the state ranking school systems by operating expenses, but they ought to also rank them by total expenses, which would give a true picture of the burden of taxpayers. With the present method, a system like Bradley, which has done a lot of building which will provide benefits for the next 50 or 60 years may rank low, while a system coasting on its old buildings and putting most of its money into operating expenses can rank higher while spending less.
Some folks at recent meetings seem to have the impression that our schools, or at least Bradley High are in crisis. Some of this false impression may have been created by exaggeration of the magnitude and urgency of the needs in well-intentioned efforts to pressure the commission into providing more money. Not everyone seems to have understood that some of the more extreme statements were political oratory that should not be taken literally.
The fact is that our school buildings are safe, clean, comfortable, reasonably well equipped and provide a good learning environment for our students. It is true that several will need some work in the next few years, which the school board will continue to plan for and perform as funds become available. A major improvement at Bradley High costing roughly $5.5 million is just getting under way and will greatly enhance those facilities.
One of our commissioners stated some time ago that he would rather have test scores that are the envy of our neighbors rather than school buildings that are the envy of neighbors. Perhaps he was unaware that we have already achieved that goal some time ago and continue to achieve it on a yearly basis. Not only do our students regularly achieve many test scores that are higher than most of our neighbors, they continue to exceed both state and national averages in most areas. In addition, students continue to earn many awards in academic, vocational and sports areas.
Our schools do indeed have needs, they always have and probably always will. But there is no crisis and our students who apply themselves are getting a top quality education which prepares them for the best universities in the country or for good jobs. There are plenty of successful graduates to demonstrate that this is the case.