Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Tempest over tuition

Monday evening’s City Council agenda has drawn a lot more attention from media and citizens than usual — likely a result of the agenda having been published almost a week earlier than usual. The item drawing the most attention (from the News Sentinel, Oak Ridge Today, the Observer and the Oak Ridger, as well as a lot of negative comment from citizens) — whether to reimburse city manager Mark Watson’s tuition for his PhD program at the University of Tennessee — came a surprise to me because it had been only lightly discussed by the Council committee that considered the city manager’s performance evaluation — and we had not voted on it, much less made a recommendation to the full Council.

Because of the number of questions and comments I’ve gotten on this item, I’m presenting my viewpoint on the tuition tempest here for everyone’s benefit.

This was my 5th year to sit on a committee to evaluate one of the Council’s two employees (city manager and city attorney), so the process seemed pretty routine. When our committee (Dave Mosby, Chuck Hope and I) met in early June, we had all digested the ratings and comments submitted by individual Council members and we moved quickly to discussing the business of  compensation and contract term. The compensation recommendation of “same percentage increase as the rest of the staff” (1-1/2%) seemed pretty easy to make. It took a bit more discussion before we decided to recommend a 2-year contract extension (to August 2016) to reflect Council members’ general satisfaction with the manager — but with the awareness (always expressed with a smile and a wink) that the only true guarantee that any Oak Ridge city manager has is good only for as long as the term of the severance pay (currently about 8 months) that he would get if he were fired.

The city manager had an additional request for us to discuss — he asked to be allowed to take the dollar value of his “emergency leave” with him when he leaves city employment (whenever that happens). We asked questions about what emergency leave means in the city system (it’s complicated), how it is accumulated (that’s complicated, too), what the policy is on accumulated emergency leave for rank-and-file employees who leave city employment (a retiring employee can use the accumulated leave to “buy” more credit toward their pension, which is provided by the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System), and what was done when the last city manager (Jim O’Connor) left the city (he received the dollar value of his accumulated emergency leave). After a lot of information-gathering and discussion the committee  decided that it would be equitable to amend Mark Watson’s contract to let him receive the dollar value of the accumulated emergency leave.

One member of the committee (Chuck Hope) expressed a desire to provide something more for the manager, at which point Mark Watson offered the suggestion that the city could pay his tuition. Personnel director Penny Sissom told us that the city used to have a tuition reimbursement program for employees, but that program was cut out of the budget some years ago (before my time on Council). I recall saying that in some future budget Council might want to re-establish a tuition reimbursement program that would be available to all employees for education programs that are judged to benefit the city, and if this was done the manager might qualify. Recent tight budgets have not included any leeway for this type of thing, but particularly with a recent influx of younger employees, I can see how it could have long-term benefits to the city government. I definitely don’t like the idea of providing this benefit to the top-level manager unless it is also offered to lower-paid employees who are less able to afford UT tuition on their own. I don’t specifically recall the comments made by the others regarding Mark’s tuition request, but I do recall that no one introduced a motion to consider adding an education reimbursement provision to the manager’s contract. We did agree that this request should be mentioned in the committee minutes.

I went off to Alaska on vacation for the latter part of June, so I missed the City Council’s June 25 work session. Apparently something that somebody said at that work session gave Mark the idea that Council might support the request for tuition reimbursement, so he drew up a proposed addition to the contract that would pay his tuition  — and that would require him to reimburse the city from his emergency leave “pot” for any course that he completed less than 3 years before leaving city employment. I had no idea this was coming, so I was surprised when I starting getting questions about it.

There’s no denying that Mark’s request shows initiative on his part (not altogether different from initiative that he shows on behalf of the city’s interests), but I can’t support this request when the City isn’t offering the same kind of opportunity to other city employees.

As it happens,  the emergency leave “deal” that the committee recommended is a larger financial benefit than the proposed tuition reimbursement that we didn’t recommend (a city memo says that the manager’s current emergency leave balance is worth more than $30,000 and it will grow in the future, while his tuition for about 12 credits in one year reportedly would be only about $6000). I suppose one reason why the tuition proposal (and not the emergency leave proposal)  is the subject of the tempest is that emergency leave is so complicated, but pretty much  everybody understands tuition.

It’s surprises like this one that make City Council membership so doggone interesting!

Update, Monday afternoon: The city manager has notified Council that he is withdrawing his request for tuition reimbursement.



  1. doug sanders says:

    Mrs. Smith I understand there are big problems in the fire dept. That the new chief has apperantly lost the respect of the men because of his inability to manage effectively. Please look into this because we need these guys to be at there best.

  2. Harold "Duck" Waddle says:

    Hi Ellen, I thought Mark Watson was hired to manage the city, not to go to UT or wherever and get his PhD! No way should the city pay his tuition or anything about his education! That is a private matter, not a city matter! Those proposing this are giving undo advantage to an individual, who may deserve it, but not at tax payers expense! This type of thinking is what is wrong in Oak Ridge! The city councils Wal Mart decision still irks me! I’ve been pretty pleased with the city actions, except for wanting to fine me for not cutting my lawn last year! I do like the parking on the street ordinance! Thanks for that one!

  3. Ellen Smith says:

    Yes, Mark’s job is to manage the city government. His decision to pursue a PhD was his own, and he’s doing it on his own time. I think his formal request for tuition reimbursement was based on a mis-reading of City Council members’ intentions. He had the good sense to withdraw the request when he realized that it wasn’t going anywhere.

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