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Tenn. Board To Halve Funding in Name of Reform

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Tennessee's board of education plans to cut its own funding by more than half and get rid of two-thirds of its 16-member staff.

The cuts are part of a restructuring effort that is expected to be phased in over the next few months.

The board says its purpose is twofold: By shedding some of the functions it has taken on in recent years, the board will sharpen its focus on setting education policy while trimming its current budget from $1.1 million to about $500,000.

"We feel we can provide the service and cut out the fat for the taxpayers," said Dick Ray, the board's chairman.

Mr. Ray rejected suggestions by some state education observers who say the downsizing was a capitulation to conservative state lawmakers who want to rein in the board's authority.

"I initiated it, and there was no pressure whatsoever," Mr. Ray said. "If we didn't think we could get the job done with these numbers, we would have asked for more."

From Reforms to Disfavor

The current board was created in 1984 as part of the school reforms initiated by then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, now a Republican presidential candidate.

While the board is credited with helping direct Gov. Alexander's reforms and those that followed, it was faulted in a 1994 state comptroller's report for poor communication with school districts and weak leadership.

Mr. Ray said those problems have been resolved.

Still, the board fell into disfavor with lawmakers this summer when it approved raises for 71 rural superintendents during a telephone conference call one day before the new fiscal year began. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

Board member Robert Byrd said, "There is a logical basis for the changes, but the motivating factors are political." Mr. Byrd complained that Mr. Ray presented the plan to the board as a fait accompli.

But Mr. Ray said the cutback plan, which was presented to the nine-member board at a workshop, is an internal matter and does not need a board vote.

In addition to funding cuts, the plan calls for moving the board into the building that houses the state education department and cutting 10 of 16 staff positions, including a public-affairs officer, two secretaries, and staff members who now handle personnel appeals.

The board would continue to have an executive director, although Brent Poulton, who now holds that post, has said in published reports that he would stay on through the year's end but would not speculate about his commitment beyond that time.

"I compliment them on redeveloping and focusing on their primary obligations," Sen. Andy Womack, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said of the board plan.

"If anything," he added, "it will give them more clout in their basic responsibilities."

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