Candidates vying for a place on the Bradley County Schools Board of Education in the 1st and 3rd districts gave their responses in the first half of the forum sponsored by the Bradley County Bar Association and Cleveland Lions Club. Candidates for the 3rd and 5th District seats on the Cleveland City Council followed them.
Incumbent Vice Mayor Avery Johnson was alone in the forum. Bill Wheeler, Johnson’s opponent in the 3rd District, was absent. Incumbent 5th District Councilman Dale Hughes shared the stage with challengers Tucker Johnston and Jonathan Porter.
Campaigning for the 1st School Board District are Ben Atchley Jr., Laura Williams Mountain and Chris Turner; Melvin “Teddy” Bryson and Nicholas Lillios are engaged in the 3rd District contest. Rodney Dillard and Charlie Rose are unopposed in the 5th and 7th districts.
The candidates generally agreed on problems facing public education but differ in personal backgrounds and professions. Atchley is a former Bradley County Commissioner and Cleveland firefighter; Mountain is a former TV news reporter and is currently a stay-at-home mother; Turner is the general manager of Cleveland Tubing; Lillios is now a self-employed businessman after working overseas for an oil service company as a geologist; and Bryson is a retired educator in the Bradley County Schools system.
Bryson said in his opening statement, “There’s not a candidate up here who is not an honorable person and has good intentions. There are just differences in who thinks they can do the best job.”
Bryson emphasized 42 years of experience as a teacher while Lillios said the school board is about setting policy and has nothing to do with classroom education or administration.
All five support Bradley County Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel and all believe the position should be appointed by the board rather than elected by popular vote. On the question of the wheel tax, Atchley was the only candidate who outright supported levying a $32 wheel tax on most vehicles and $16 tax on motorcycles.
Mountain said, “I do support education. I do support our students. I do not support the idea of building debt upon debt. We need to be teaching our students they can’t have everything they want, anytime they want it. If the money is not there, then it’s not there.”
Turner does not support the wheel tax because he sees it as an expansion of local government. While there are needs, there must be discussion about different ways to live within the school system’s $68.7 million budget.
“It (wheel tax) is an extension of local government.” He said as a businessperson, “I understand very clearly that when you do something new, you create new costs. You create new jobs. You create new responsibilities. If we’re going to create a wheel tax and generate stickers [to display on vehicles], those have to be accounted for, those have to be inventoried, those have to be reported, those are all new operating and fixed costs.”
Bryson said the money generated from the wheel tax would go toward 16 new classrooms and a cafeteria at Walker Valley High School; repairs at Lake Forest Middle School, “If you’ve ever been to Lake Forest, you’ll see why they need it;” and a new Blue Springs Elementary School. “The County Commission in Bradley County sets the tax rate. The school board has no vote on that at all. They set it. They chose to give you the right to vote on it.”
He advised the public to vote the way they choose though he doesn’t understand how anyone can be for education and against funding education.
Lillios said, “As a candidate, I don’t feel I’m in the position to influence voters. I believe that is up to those who are already elected, so given that, I will not answer yes or no.”
He went on to say Bradley County Schools is one of the lowest funded in Tennessee, which ranks 48 out of 50 in terms of funding per student.
“Our system is underfunded,” he said. “Is a wheel tax the right way? You have to ask yourself, is it fair for all concerned if someone has an $80,000 Porsche and they pay $32 and if someone else has a Ford Taurus, 10 years old, worth about 800 bucks and they pay $32 — is that tax spread equally among all citizens?”
He said the public would have to decide if it wants the funds to come in the form of a wheel tax or property tax.
Just as the other candidates stated, Atchley said he did not believe anyone was in favor of a wheel tax, “But having said that, I will say that I am going to support and vote for the wheel tax. I feel like our County Commission, having been a county commissioner, I couldn’t get eight votes to increase the property tax which is the only fund we have for operational costs or construction.”
The question of a wheel tax continued after the City Council candidates were seated.
Johnson said he now supports the wheel tax, though he did not support it when it was first introduced because, “I didn’t know what the County Commission planned to do with the money they received. … We’ve got a lot of people moving into the area and our schools are bursting at the seams.”
Hughes asked, “Would you rather have 17,000 homeowners who pay property tax or would you rather have 75,000 owners of cars sharing in that? I don’t know. I think the County Commission will be faced with a huge problem of where they are going to get the money to do the repairs at the schools as well as a new school at Blue Springs. We are 162 students over state standards in the city (and that indicates) we need a new elementary school. We have to have money to do it.”
Johnston said he didn’t like any tax whatsoever, but it’s a necessary evil. “I am in favor of the wheel tax, but if it fails, what are you going to do? Where are you going to find the money?” He doesn’t believe many people are in favor of the tax. “I think we need a Plan B because we do need the money for these schools.”
Porter said something needs to be done, but he was unsure if the wheel tax was that right something and, “I’m not sure if (raising) property tax is the right thing, but we have to do something.” He said he wants to be proactive instead of reactive if he’s elected. He said if action had been taken years ago, “we wouldn’t be here discussing this. As we move forward, let’s shoot for being proactive instead of being reactive.” He advised voters to gather the facts before they vote on any tax or any agenda “and let’s plan for the future.”
Early voting began this morning at 9 a.m. and continues through July 28. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The third and final forum is schedule for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday in the Johnson Theatre at Cleveland State Community College. That forum will include candidates for the 3rd and 4th U.S. Congressional districts, and further discussion of the proposed wheel tax.