Before this month, Clay County, Tennessee, was perhaps best known as the place where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s long-serving secretary of state Cordell Hull was elected Democratic chairman at age 19 and later practiced law. But over the past week, in one of those minor historical ironies, this rural Appalachian county on the Kentucky border has made national headlines for its school board’s most un-FDR-like decision to close its three public schools—and blame it on the cost of expanding health care coverage under Obamacare.
Thursday, after a lawsuit filed by two parents objecting to the closure was moved from chancery to federal court (since denying students an education might not be the best application of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment), Clay County reversed course and declared that the schools would reopen this coming Monday as scheduled, even if it means completely emptying the district’s coffers.
For, school in or out of session, the school budget crisis remains acute, and Jerry Strong, the county’s director of schools, doesn’t sound convinced that educating the children of Clay County is the best use of the board’s fast-dwindling funds: “If we spend that, how are we going to put it back?” he asked. “Are we just not kicking the can further down the road to make it more difficult later on?”
The county commission, which is responsible for funding schools, has repeatedly denied the school board’s requests for more money, and an attempt to fill the gap by hiking property taxes—the usual basis of school funding, and a broader denial of equal protection that extends far beyond Clay County—has already failed, so now Strong can only hope that a scheduled wheel-tax referendum in March gives his schools the financial boost they so desperately need. If not, he can keep blaming Obama.
Of course, earlier this year, Tennessee declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even after hospitals agreed to pay the state’s share of the costs (which, per an Obamacare provision, would never exceed 10 percent). Given that the median household income in Clay County was an abysmal $29,727 as of the last census—almost identical to the national minimum Medicaid eligibility threshold of $29,700—it is likely that many of the county’s school employees would have qualified for Medicaid under the expansion (if they didn’t already).
In other words, Obamacare isn’t the problem here.