The Brentwood Bargain

On the same day the Williamson County Commission voted in favor of more lattes and less taxes — meaning less investment in schools — the Brentwood City Commission was presented with a request to explore the operation of an independent city school district.

The Tennessean notes:

As Williamson County Commission struggles to come up with long-term funding for the projected influx of students to enroll in its public schools over the next several years, Tabor argued that future tax increases to fund the school district would affect Brentwood residents disproportionately.

“We would feel increases more than anyone else in the county due to our home values,” he said.

Tabor said there’s a “fundamental funding gap” between what Brentwood contributes to Williamson County School and what the city is getting in return.

The argument that Brentwood residents aren’t getting value for their money invested in Williamson County Schools is one that simply does not make sense. Williamson County Schools are consistently among the best in the state in terms of student achievement. The district has an average ACT score of 24.6. Williamson County has the lowest per pupil spending of any district rated in the top 10 in terms of student achievement. In fact, Williamson County spends $1790 less per student than the average PPE of the top ten districts in the state.

Now, let’s examine the idea that a city school district might be a better value. Or, as Tabor may not have said but his comments implied: Would it be cheaper to have a city school system?

No.

Example one is Franklin Special School District. A school district located in the city limits of Franklin inside Williamson County. Interestingly, while Williamson County’s PPE is the lowest of any district in the top 10 in terms of student achievement, Franklin’s is the highest. Franklin SSD spends $13,984 per student. That’s $5,039 MORE than Williamson spends. A portion of that is attributable to teacher pay, which is roughly $6000 higher in Franklin than in Williamson.

Now, let’s turn to the most recent experiment in independent school districts: Shelby County. Six cities on the outskirts of Shelby County formed special school districts recently as a result of the merger between Memphis City and Shelby County schools.

The average per pupil spending for those districts is about $8500. That’s just a touch less than Williamson spends. On the high end, Millington spends over $10,000 per student.

What would Brentwood’s experience be? Would they pay teachers less than both Franklin and Williamson County in order to keep costs low? How likely would they be to be competitive in providing the resources that families have come to expect in Williamson County if they operated on an even lower per pupil expenditure than Williamson County does?

Tabor presented an item for discussion: Would it be a good value for Brentwood to operate an independent school system. The answer is no. Williamson County Schools provides one of the best values for the dollar invested of any school system in the state. Oh, and they do it with the lowest tax rate of any county in middle Tennessee.

Brentwood, your current situation as it relates to schools is a bargain.

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4 thoughts on “The Brentwood Bargain

  1. You’re missing a piece of the story here. Based on what I’ve heard and seen in local meetings, I think part of the issue is county commissioners that refuse to raise taxes to fund education. In Brentwood there are many families that would be willing to pay more to get more. Among other concerns, some families understand the value of Williamson Co teachers, but would potentially like the option of paying the best more (or at least a living wage…)

    • Thanks for that feedback, Carrie. I intended to point out the current situation relative to a city system. It’s certainly frustrating that County Commissioners aren’t getting (or responding to) the message that parents and others are willing to pay more to invest in schools. With regard to teacher compensation, one start would be getting Williamson teachers on par with Franklin Special. “Paying the best more” could be a slippery slope toward merit pay, which usually doesn’t work well and can be quite expensive (see: Denver). But, paying teachers as a whole a living wage — or at least a wage that allows them to actually live in Williamson County — should be a priority, in my view. My hope is that those parents (I know there are many) who are frustrated with the County Commission’s reluctance to invest in schools continue to make that frustration known. Elections are just one year away.

  2. Thank you for the coverage of this important topic. Spending per student is a straightforward measure, but for many parents this is more to do with community upheaval and the uncertainty related to habitual rezoning. A city system could be more efficient for Brentwood, perhaps not on a PPE basis, but on the whole a significant improvement over where we are today. Many residents are frustrated that school budgets are being held hostage by so many other competing claims of priority such as the county’s bond rating (which many view as secondary/ not relevant given the county’s very strong financial position). Many parents would gladly pay more taxes to solve this issue for the long term.

    It is long past time for Williamson to engage seriously in longer-term financial planning to ensure the continued soundness of its crown jewel, our schools. In the meantime, parents are simply exploring possibilities to be certain all options are considered. Further discussion, debate, analysis, and coverage will be vital in meeting that goal.

    • Absolutely, David. That’s why I wrote this piece. To provide some baseline information on what a city system may look like and cost. Based on the experience of other districts, I’d urge caution in moving away from a district that is doing so much with its education dollars. You’re in the enviable position of having a very low tax rate and the ability to generate significant revenue with only a modest tax increase.

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