School Board to Discuss Sullivan’s Column Next Week

In this week’s paper, columnist (and former MP owner) Joe Sullivan has a piece about whether Knox County owes Knox County Schools upwards of $10 million. He first wrote about the issue in May, asserting that the Knox County Trustee’s office has been wrongly collecting a portion of the local option sales tax revenues that go to schools since 1998.

Since then, Sullivan has tried to get a response from the county without much luck. Here’s part of his column:

On May 27, I furnished school board Chair Lynne Fugate and Superintendent Jim McIntyre an opinion by my attorney, Tom McAdams, affirming the validity of all my assertions. Fugate, in turn, furnished the opinion to deputy law director David Sanders, who purports to serve the school board, and asked for a response from the law director, Bud Armstrong.

Three months have passed and no response has been forthcoming. Instead, Armstrong’s only known communication on the matter (of which I’m aware) was in a July 8 memorandum to, of all people, County Commissioner Dave Wright. This is egregious behavior that borders on dereliction of duty on the part of the law director who is obliged to represent all branches of county government co-equally.

In his memorandum, Armstrong claims that the 1965 agreement was “held to be invalid and unenforceable by the Chancery Court in 1995” and subsequently abrogated by a 1998 settlement of that court proceeding.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and Armstrong’s claims are pure poppycock. Indeed, if there’s anything worse than the law director’s improprieties, it’s his incompetence.

I obtained a copy of Armstrong’s memorandum from another county commissioner and furnished it to Fugate and McIntyre as well as McAdams for review. My attorney’s conclusion: “The 1965 agreement remains in full force and effect, enforceable in accordance with its terms.”

To enforce it and seek recovery, the school board will plainly have to retain its own attorney to act on its behalf.  … Patently, a conflict exists with a law director who is much more beholden to County Mayor Tim Burchett and County Commission. Having repeatedly spurned the school board’s request for additional funding, they aren’t about to fork over anything like $10 million without a fight.

However, it now seems that KCS is taking the issue seriously, even if the county isn’t. The agenda for next week’s meeting, posted online last night, includes an item entitled “Discussion and possible action regarding collection of Trustee’s fees.” Included in the agenda packet are the legal opinions from both sides.

Armstrong’s three-page opinion is prefaced with an Aug. 6 letter and apology for not having sent it to Fugate back in July. “[F]or that oversight, I beg your indulgence. I have, maybe mistakenly, assumed that my memo had been transmitted throughout the school system,” he writes. (This seems to be a bad habit of Armstrong’s, as KCS administration had no knowledge  of Wednesday’s legal opinion about the Board’s conduct agreement with the superintendent until I called them yesterday afternoon—McIntyre wasn’t cc’d on the opinion.) 

McAdams’ 12-page opinion discounting Armstrong’s opinion is supplemented by a four-page memorandum and seven-page exhibit expounding on the details of the 1995 lawsuit that the county says negates the 1965 agreement. Not being in the legal field, this reporter has no idea who’s in the right, but McAdams does seem to have enough detail to make a case of it. (If you’re a lawyer who understands all this and has a neutral opinion on the battles between the county and the school board and wants to share any legal thoughts on the matter, do get in touch.)

The Board will discuss all of this at its work session Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the AJ Building. (Yes, work sessions are usually on Mondays, but it’s Labor Day.) If you care about seeing the new members sworn in, then get there at 4:30 p.m. On Wednesday, at its regular meeting in the City County Building, the Board will decide on an action to take, if any, regarding the possibly uncollected fees.

Both meetings should be something—and not just because of this issue. Also on the agenda are three discussion items from Mike McMillian: one to rescind the passage of the KCS Five-Year Plan that passed last month over his opposition; one to discuss the procedure for postponing agenda items per Board members’ personal privilege, which McMillan tried to do with the Five-Year Plan; and one to discuss the Board’s Executive Committee, which currently consists solely of the Chair and McIntyre (and which overruled McMillan’s personal privilege last month). Don’t expect this discussion to stay calm, either.