November 17, 2013

Jones: ‘My constituents’ are ‘the children’

By Christopher Smith

— Two industries were among those hit hard by the housing market crisis in 2008: carpet and architecture.

Sherwood Jones III, a local architect, said the possibility of closing his jointly owned independent firm seemed likely for the last three years. But Carlson-Jones Architects on Pentz Street in Dalton is still open today.

“When the economy was great, things were really good,” Jones said. “In the last few years, we’ve really struggled. But we put in some policies: we were going to pay everyone else before we paid ourselves, we weren’t going to have any debt, and just manage this business as effectively as we could. We did that and survived.”

That kind of money sense is something Jones said he will bring to the Dalton Board of Education when he begins his first term on Jan. 1. Jones was unopposed for the seat in the Nov. 5 election. He will replace outgoing board member Steve Williams, who did not run for re-election.

The city school system, like the rest of the nation, has been dealing with a growing money crunch. “Just like businesses and churches,” Jones, a deacon at First Baptist Church on Thornton Avenue, said.

The school system’s budget projects $59.6 million in revenue and $64.2 million in expenses for fiscal year 2014, which began in July, and $64 million in revenue and $75 million in expenses for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1, 2014.

School administrators have been relying on a rainy day fund to cover the growing deficit. Originally expected to dry up next year, recent changes to projections, mostly tied to the health of the tax digest, anticipate the rainy day balance to be roughly $7 million by the end of fiscal year 2014, Theresa Perry, school system finance officer, said.

Several board members have said a property tax rate increase is seemingly inevitable in the next few years.

“We cannot continue to operate at a $4 million deficit each year,” Jones said.

“I think we need to periodically — and now is the time to start it — compare ourselves to other systems of our size,” he said. “I think the school board has done a very good job in running effectively, but I don’t know if they are or not for sure. I’m just now getting into this and I think I will definitely take a good, hard look at (the budget).”

Jones said he expects a tough first term due to the tight budget, but also because the student population continues to grow district-wide beyond expectations. The student population has increased from 5,934 in 2003 to 7,703 at the last official count in October, with Dalton Middle School and Dalton High School close to over-capacity.

“We’re getting ready to get into this whole situation with schools being at capacity,” Jones said. “How are we going to handle that, especially with a community so rich in tradition with one high school?”

Jones said he will have to “just really get my hands around all that’s going on” before discussing solutions at length, but is preparing for “hard decisions.”

“I’ve been told this is the absolute worst political position in the world,” he said. “But the end result is you really are impacting these kids in our community. ... My constituents aren’t the parents, the politicians. It is the children. And every decision has to be made on what they need.”

Jones said he is also interested in finding ways to invest in early education to prepare students for school sooner.

“Dalton High is as good a school as any prep school in Chattanooga,” said Jones, who graduated from Dalton High in 1980 and also from Auburn University. “I really believe that.”

Jones and his wife Danielle have four children. Emma, 14, is a Dalton High School freshman, while Mincey and Garrett, both 10, are fifth-graders at Brookwood Elementary School. Emani, Jones’ youngest, is 18-months-old and attends preschool at Friendship House, where Jones serves on the board.