Swept away

Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 11:45pm

Jamie Hollin has been a member of the Metro Council for all of seven months, but even he’s probably adept at counting votes.

Leading up to last week’s Metro schools budget hearing, Hollin and other council members had tossed around the idea of bolstering the school district’s $633.3 million budget with additional funds to ensure custodians keep their jobs at MNPS. Under the proposed budget, the district would outsource its custodial services to Ohio-based GCA Services Group to net $5.1 million in savings.

“I bet there’s 21 votes on this council to approve giving you more money if we thought you’d use it that way,” Hollin told Director of Schools Jesse Register and the six present members of the school board Thursday evening. “I believe there’s probably more than 21.”

But that’s just the problem. The biggest, if not the only, revelation that came out of the four-and-a-half-hour budget hearing is that Register’s decision wasn’t solely based on financial necessity. It appears outsourcing is also a preference of policy, a philosophical choice.

“If the board were given additional money, we would have to put other priorities on the table along with this one,” Register said.

Those other priorities, he said, include the addition of 30 English-Language-Learner teachers, paying elementary schoolteachers the amount needed to work 12 months and increasing the pay of all Metro teachers.

It’s not an unreasonable case. After all, Register came to Nashville to turn around a school system that has historically struggled. Measures to meet those ends are his priority. From his perspective, keeping custodians employed by the district doesn’t fit into the equation. By privatizing, Register has argued, the district can save millions, pay for the same quality of work and actually hire an additional 63 custodians and groundskeepers.

Hollin is relatively new to the council, but he seems to have already picked up on the strife that often exists between the nine-member school board and the 40-member council.

Part of the frustration for council members is with the system Metro’s founding fathers established almost a half-century ago. According to the Metro Charter, the council votes on how much funding the school district receives. From there, the board decides how those dollars are used.

Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr., who said he felt the council was left out by the school board in budget discussions, has proposed exploring ways to rectify the issue through a charter amendment or by other means. But barring that unlikely movement, the council will continue to control the purse and the school board the allocation.

Tension over the budget is bound to continue during tight years.

“I apologize if this sounds like an indictment,” said Councilman Michael Craddock, a critic of the outsourcing plan. “But from my perspective, it appears to me, based on what Dr. Register has said a couple of times this evening, that you have taken advantage of the situation and pushed aside some 600 custodians, and cut the hours of another 800 school bus drivers, because the time was right to do it. You could excuse it away.”