TEA on State of the State

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown offered these remarks in response to Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State:

“The Tennessee Education Association is pleased to hear Gov. Bill Lee intends to build on the substantial investments made in recent years to increase state funding of our great public schools. TEA supports his commitment to increasing career technical education programs, STEM initiatives and teacher salaries.

The teacher salary funding is substantial at $71 million, making it approximately a 2.5 percent increase. The key will be to ensure that money actually ends up in teacher paychecks. Additionally, if the $25 million going to vouchers and the $12 million earmarked for privately owned charter buildings were redirected to teacher salaries, the state could keep up with the cost of inflation and reimburse teachers for the hundreds of dollars they spend on classroom supplies.  

We have concerns about Lee’s proposal to increase funding for charter schools and pave the way for rapid charter school expansion. Charter schools are proven to destabilize public school budgets and damage existing classrooms where there is rapid expansion. Charter schools need to be a local decision, because local taxpayers bear a majority of the costs. The Tennessee Constitution clearly states that we have a responsibility to provide a quality public education for every student in Tennessee. Improving public schools requires more money, not less, to provide a well-rounded education for students.   

TEA also has deep concerns about massive funding for Education Savings Accounts, which are vouchers with less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse. In a time when teachers across the state have to dig deep into their pockets for needed classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm students in other states. Let’s support Tennessee students and teachers by directing taxpayer dollars to our public school classrooms, not vouchers that harm student achievement.     

There are many proven ways to improve public schools, such as reducing class sizes so educators can spend more one-on-one time helping students. We should invest in what we know works, including recruiting and retaining qualified and committed educators, creating inviting classrooms, supplying students with modern textbooks, and providing the other resources that can set all students off toward a great future. That’s how taxpayer funds should be spent.  

I believe we have common ground with the governor around the state TNReady assessment. While we welcome his commitment to ensuring students and educators do not experience the system failures of years past, it is important to recognize that even in a year where there are no issues administering the test, standardized test scores of a test like TNReady are not valid measures of student achievement, teacher effectiveness or school performance.

Students and teachers benefit most when tests are used as diagnostic tools to identify where students may be struggling and need extra instruction. The high-stakes TNReady system we have in place does not equip educators to diagnose and teach. TEA wants to see educators involved in the design and implementation of accountability alternatives, including a proper pre-test/post-test system, creative use of benchmark testing, and other accurate gauges to ensure student progress. TEA members statewide are committed to working with Gov. Lee’s administration and the General Assembly to advocate for legislation that is in the best interest of all Tennessee children.”

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PET on State of the State

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offered these comments in response to Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State:

Governor Bill Lee gave his first state of the state speech on Monday, March 4, 2019, from our state Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee. A highly anticipated address, it focused heavily on education issues including career and technical education initiatives, increased funding for school safety programs, and expansion of various school choice initiatives.

Since the beginning of his campaign, one of Governor Lee’s biggest priorities has been workforce development through expanding and strengthening career and technical education programs. As expected, he spoke more in-depth about his proposed Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education Initiative (GIVE) and how it fits into his administration’s proposed budget. Governor Lee sees this as an opportunity to help students develop the practical skills that help them perform in project-based environments, learn to work with others, and grow the discipline needed for success in a competitive workplace. It facilitates new partnerships between industry and our schools, and a more concrete connection between labor and education, which is a direction that the federal government has taken the past few years. The state will also expand and improve offerings in STEM, and CTE is a major priority. We applaud those investments in education.

TEACHER COMPENSATION
We are pleased that Governor Lee is fully funding the Basic Education Program and recommending $71 million for a well-deserved 2.5% pay raise for teachers. Compensation is the key to recruitment and retention of our educators. Our teacher compensation model needs to be competitive nationally. There is currently pending legislation from the administration that would require school districts to report to the department of education and the BEP review committee how they have implemented increased funding from the state for instructional wages and salaries, intended by legislators for teacher raises. This is a positive development. Governor Lee is sending a message to educators that he recognizes and appreciates their efforts and will work to see they are fairly compensated for their efforts.

TESTING
Policymakers and stakeholders have been waiting on a message from the governor about how he plans to improve our assessment system, to ensure that our metrics are empowering and informing, not inhibiting quality instruction, while providing accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. The Governor talked about the frustration around the administration of the state test, and he has charged the Commissioner with the procurement process. Going forward, he stated that his focus will be on executing a testing regimen that is trustworthy, helpful, and on time. However, he did not address other adjustments to testing, like a pilot project that allowed some districts to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment or flexibility in high performing districts to use alternative evaluations.

SCHOOL SAFETY
School safety is also a high priority for the Governor. The proposed School Safety Grant program includes $40 million aimed at addressing the need for an SRO in every school. This includes an increase in current recurring expenditures and a one-time infusion of an additional $20 million. The program will prioritize the approximately 500 schools that do not currently have an SRO. While there is a local match requirement, schools may include the costs of current safety measures in that calculation. For schools who already have SROs, there will be an application process for them to request grant funds for other safety-related initiatives as outlined in the proposed legislation.

“School safety has been a high priority for Professional Educators of Tennessee,” according to the executive director of the organization JC Bowman. The organization conducted a statewide assessment on safety in 2018. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and Bowman also conducted a well-publicized School Safety Town Hall in Hamilton County in 2018.

“One of the highest priorities we can have in American society is the safety and protection of children – and the men and women who teach them,” according to Bowman. He added, “we think this is a very positive step in keeping our schools safe and reducing school violence.”

Helping students with mental health issues is another important component of school safety – especially children who have experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Professional Educators of Tennessee has advocated for an increase in school counselors, whose work with students in this area of concern is of equal concern as their work helping student prepare to be college and career ready. The TN Department of Education launched a Trauma-Informed Schools initiative last fall to designate schools that have undergone training on how to create a school environment that both helps students and empowers teachers in their daily interactions with students. The program trains adults in the school to recognize and respond to those who have been affected by traumatic stress and includes training on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We must make every school a safer place for all of our children.

CHARTER SCHOOLS
If a charter school is effective, then facility dollars may be a good investment. However, if a charter school fails to deliver on its promise of a quality education then the investment is a waste. Public schools are likely to also want to secure facility funding. We look forward to this debate and likely discussion. The state will eventually need to address facility growth in rapidly growing communities.

ED SAVINGS ACCOUNTS
For the most part, school choice is already available to upper-class families through residential mobility. However, low-income and middle-income parents/guardians have been subjected to limited choices for their children. This proposal by the Governor on Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) will allow parents in the most under-performing school districts to use a portion of state education money in a way that fits with what they believe that their children need. ESAs will most certainly be the most problematic piece for the Governor to pass and enact. The Tennessee Education Savings Account will provide approximately $7,300 to eligible, participating students. Eligibility is limited to low-income students in districts with three or more schools ranked in the bottom 10% of schools. This currently includes Metro-Nashville Public Schools, Hamilton County, Knox County, Jackson-Madison County, Shelby County, and the Achievement School District.

“They will likely pose capacity limitations for low socio-economic parents,” noted Executive Director JC Bowman. “By targeting districts that are lower performing, Governor Lee may be able to pass it through the Tennessee General Assembly. Nevertheless, ESAs do not guarantee improved school effectiveness or outcomes, better parental involvement, and certainly no increased systemic investments in public education. A positive to Lee’s ESA plan is that it will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school. However, we have concerns regarding the implementation of the plan as presented, as well as future expansion.”

CONCLUSION
There was much to like in Governor Lee’s State of the State. The debate over ESAs will likely be the most contentious and draw the most debate. A fully funded Basic Education Program (BEP), recommending $71 million and a 2.5% pay raise for teachers is much needed. We had hoped he would address other issues like school finance and discuss the possibilities of a school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. However, in general, we think most Tennesseans will react positively to the speech by Governor Lee. Those on the right will certainly love the attention to civics and character formation, as well as on curriculum in which he pledged to “root out” the influence of Common Core in our state. Those on the left will like increased funding for school safety programs going to SROs. He laid out a fairly ambitious agenda; it is now the Tennessee General Assembly’s turn to vote their opinion.

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100% for Charters, 2.5% for Teachers

Tonight, Governor Bill Lee outlined his proposed budget for 2019-2020. Lee’s budget doubles the fund for charter school facilities to $12 million. This amounts to a benefit of $342 per student (there are roughly 35,000 Tennessee students in charter schools).

Meanwhile, he announced a meager improvement to teacher salaries of around 2% – $71 million. This amounts to $71 per student.

So, charter schools — which serve only 3.5% of the state’s students — will see a 100% increase in available facility funding from the state while teachers will see only a 2% increase in pay.

If the two investments were equal and funded at the rate granted to charter schools, there would be a $342 million investment in teacher salaries. That’s roughly a 10% raise. A raise that’s desperately needed as Tennessee leads the nation in percentage of teachers with little to no classroom experience. We also have one of the largest teacher wage gaps in the Southeast.

As one Nashville teacher pointed out, Nashville – and the entire state — have a failed business plan:


I’m starting a business and looking for workers. The work is intense, so the workers should be highly skilled. Experience preferred. Starting salary is 40k with the opportunity to get all the way to 65k after 25 years of staying in the same position. See how dumb that sounds?

Now, those are numbers for Nashville. Some teachers around the state have to teach for 10 years before they even hit $40,000. Still, the point is clear: The value proposition for teachers in our state is not very good. Unfortunately, Governor Lee’s first budget is not doing much to change that. It’s the status quo. A nominal increase that will likely not entirely make it into teacher paychecks.

Tennessee’s numbers when it comes to both investment in schools and educational attainment are disappointing. Continuing along the same path means we’ll keep getting the same results.

The bottom line: Money matters.

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Will Bill Lee Get Serious About Teacher Pay?


New Tennessee Governor Bill Lee is expected to layout his first spending proposal for the state in late February, with a State of the State Address planned for early March. First, he’s holding hearings to learn from state departments about current expenditures and needs/desires going forward.

Yesterday, he heard from the Department of Education and indicated that improving teacher pay would be among his priorities, though he didn’t offer any specifics.

First, let’s be clear: Our state has the money available to make a significant investment in teacher pay.

TEA identifies more than $800 million in revenue from budget cycles dating back to 2015 that could be invested in schools. Additionally, there’s an estimated surplus of $200 million and new internet sales tax revenue of $200 million.

Next, let’s admit we have a crisis on our hands. Tennessee teachers are paid bargain basement prices and the situation is getting dire:

Tennessee has consistently under-funded schools while foregoing revenue and offering huge local and state tax incentives to Amazon.

In fact, while telling teachers significant raises were “unaffordable” last year, Metro Nashville somehow found millions to lure an Amazon hub to the city. This despite a long-building crisis in teacher pay in the city. Combine a city with low pay for teachers with a state government reluctant to invest in salaries, and you have a pretty low value proposition for teachers in our state.

Now, let’s talk about why this problem persists. It’s because our school funding formula, the BEP, is broken:

The state funds 70% of the BEP instructional component. That means the state sends districts $28,333.90 per BEP-generated teacher. But districts pay an average of $50,355 per teacher they employ. That’s a $22,000 disparity. In other words, instead of paying 70% of a district’s basic instructional costs, the state is paying 56%.

To be clear, those are 2014 numbers. So, let’s update a little. Now, the state pays 70% of $44,430.12, or roughly $31,000 per teacher generated by the BEP formula. But, the actual average cost of a teacher is $53,000. So, districts come up $22,000 short in their quest to stretch state dollars to meet salary needs. Of course, districts are also responsible for 100% of the cost of any teachers hired beyond the BEP generated number. Every single district in the state hires MORE teachers than the BEP generates. Here’s more on that:

First, nearly every district in the state hires more teachers than the BEP formula generates. This is because students don’t arrive in neatly packaged groups of 20 or 25, and because districts choose to enhance their curriculum with AP courses, foreign language, physical education, and other programs. This add-ons are not fully contemplated by the BEP.

Chalkbeat notes another challenge of getting money into teacher paychecks:

Under Haslam, the state increased allocations for teacher pay the last three years, but the money hasn’t always reached their paychecks. That’s because districts have discretion on how to invest state funding for instructional needs if they already pay their teachers the state’s average weighted annual salary of $45,038.

There are, of course, some clear solutions to these challenges. These solutions have yet to be tried. Mainly because they cost money and our political leaders have so far lacked the will to prioritize a meaningful investment in our teaching force. Here’s an outline of how those solutions might work:

There’s an easy fix to this and it has been contemplated by at least one large school system in the state. That fix? Moving the BEP instructional component to the state average. Doing so would cost just over $500 million. So, it’s actually NOT that easy. Another goal of those seeking greater equity is moving the BEP instructional match from 70% to 75%, essentially fulfilling the promise of BEP 2.0. Doing so would cost at least $150 million.

My guess? Bill Lee won’t propose either of these solutions. That doesn’t mean a legislator can’t or won’t — though it hasn’t happened so far.

Stay tuned for late February, when we’ll see what Bill Lee means when he says he’s committed to improving teacher pay.

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Fun Facts


The Tennessee Education Association is out with a fact sheet on school funding. The document makes clear Tennessee can certainly afford to invest more money in schools. In fact, TEA identifies more than $800 million in revenue from budget cycles dating back to 2015 that could be invested in schools. Additionally, there’s an estimated surplus of $200 million and new internet sales tax revenue of $200 million.

The bottom line: When Gov. Lee and the legislature say we can’t afford to do more for our schools, don’t believe them.

In fact, since 2010, Tennessee has actually failed to move the needle on school funding. Specifically:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating. Further evidence can be found in noting that in 2014, Tennessee ranked 43rd in the nation in spending per student. In 2015, that ranking dropped to 44th. 2016? Still 44th.

We’re not getting the job done. The state’s Comptroller suggests we are underfunding schools by at least $500 million a year.

The analysis of available revenue by TEA makes clear Tennessee can afford to close that gap. Unfortunately, our leaders have so far lacked the political will to make that happen. Why not invest in schools? Why not use available revenue to boost opportunity for every child in our state? Why not close the funding gap?

These are the questions Tennesseans should be asking as the 111th General Assembly begins and Bill Lee assumes office.

 

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On Teacher Morale


JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers his thoughts on boosting teacher morale

We know psychologically that there is a connection between feeling of self-worth and actions. When teachers lose hope in their career, eventually they change the direction of their own future and in turn it impacts the future of our children. If you are an educator or have friends who are educators, you have undoubtedly discussed teacher morale in public education and thoughts on the future of education. Sadly, those thoughts were most likely negative. Educators who enter the field are often bright-eyed, confident, and enthusiastic. Teacher turnover is continuing to climb higher, yet those entering the field is going lower. What happened? That is the problem we must solve.

Teacher turnover holds back our schools and our students. How do you improve morale? It will take multiple strategies, which differ from community to community, district to district, school to school. Let’s look at four of the most prominent issues: educator compensation, lack of respect for educators, testing and out of control students.

Educator Compensation. Compensation is everything that is provided to the educator for their services. Compensation alone will not impact teacher morale. Governor Bill Haslam made teacher salaries a priority, and should be recognized for his efforts. It is debatable if dollars allocated for salary increases reached all classroom teachers. This may be attributed to district implemented pay plans. Educators should be involved in the development of those plans. Governor-elect Bill Lee indicated he intends to develop a pipeline of well-trained, highly compensated educators who can flourish in the teaching profession. This will likely include incentive compensation programs, together with stipends, and associated benefits that are based on professional employee performance that exceeds expectations. Compensation can also be used to aid in hiring, and/or retaining highly qualified teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.

Lack of Respect for Educators. Teaching, a profession once held in high esteem, is being de-valued both by stakeholders and policymakers for a variety of reasons. Teachers, who are on the frontlines of parental dissatisfaction with the system, are often made scapegoats by people who have lost trust in the system. This lack of respect is reflected by lack of parental support and engagement. In fairness, some parents are supportive and work with educators to help ensure their children get the best possible education. Yet more often than not, parents simply blame the teacher for the problems at school. But even more than that, teachers often lack the support of their administrators, district, and even the state. Bureaucrats keep piling on more requirements of educators with barely a nod of appreciation. Teachers, above all other professions, deserve the recognition and gratitude of a job well-done. Doing so on a regular basis will be a small step toward improving the teacher turnover rate.

Testing. The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. Nobody would object to testing that benefits the teaching and learning process of students. As it stands currently, the data is not received in a timely manner and the results yield little or no benefit to the students. Educators would welcome a robust, practical solution to current assessment issues. A portfolio-based assessment model is also problematic. However, it may be a preferred model of student evaluation if it is not too time-consuming. It is based on a wide range of student work done over a long period of time, rather than on a single, paper-and-pencil test taken over a few hours. We must work to ensure that our assessments and the subsequent results are empowering and informing without being a time drain. Assessments should not inhibit quality instruction but provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. Most importantly, assessments should be not used a punitive measure against teachers.

Out of Control Students. Effective educators consider the root causes of misbehavior and develop appropriate solutions on a consistent, ongoing basis. However, some students need attention and intervention beyond the scope of what a classroom teacher can provide. It is imperative that a school and district adopt policies that support effective classroom management, as well as student instruction for all students. One possible policy has to be a better tracking of the time an educator has to spend on discipline issues. Do parents have the right to know, for example, if one student disrupts their own child’s education so frequently, they lose instruction time? School districts must balance their responsibilities toward the community with the responsibility to nurture students. Without discipline, students cannot learn. Students themselves must respect rules and authority regardless of underlying disabilities/issues. Districts must have policies in place that protect all students’ right to learn.

There is no one size fits all strategy that will work in every school or district. This is a recurring theme among those who believe in local control in public education. Together, we can work to address teacher morale issues. Once a plan is in place, it is very important to examine, evaluate, and adjust as necessary.

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Frogge on the MNPS Budget


Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge yesterday outlined some concerns she has as the school system’s proposed budget faces tough choices ahead:

MNPS will receive a $5 million increase this year, rather than the $45 million increase requested by the board. Mayor Briley is doing his best with limited funding, as this article explains, but there just isn’t enough money to go around.

For the first time in my school board career, I voted against a budget proposal. After weeks of receiving conflicting and inaccurate information from the administration, I lost trust in the budget process. The administration still will not answer many of my questions, which is unacceptable.

So where will the cuts come from?

They will not come from the charter sector. Under state law, charters must be paid, so the $5 million increase must first go toward the $14 million increase in charter school costs this year. While other schools may suffer, charter schools will remain fully funded.

Cuts are not likely to be made at the top levels of administration. While cutting paper from classrooms and proposing to cut seven social workers from schools, Dr. Joseph pushed for a pay raise for himself and his top administrators. In the wake of the budget shortfall, he chose to keep his personal chauffeur. Dr. Joseph also pushed to pay friends brought to Nashville extra, unexplained stipends and high salaries off the pay scale.

Under the current budget proposal, Dr. Joseph will earn $346,000 next year. This amount includes his salary plus vacation days and deferred compensation, but doesn’t include his benefits or any consulting fees that he may earn per his contract. (The administration will not disclose how much MNPS employees are earning in consulting fees, even though I have repeatedly requested this information.) Dr. Joseph has added top level administrators and will pay four of his five Chiefs $190,000 each next year. (The fifth earns approximately $170,000.) To provide context for these salaries, Dr. Register earned $266,000 per year and paid his top administrators $155,000 each. Jay Steele, who earned $155,000, was alone performing the same job that now is fulfilled by two Chiefs, each earning $190,000.

Cuts are also not likely to come from consultants. The year before Dr. Joseph and his team arrived, the district paid outside consultants approximately $5 million dollars. Next year, it appears the district will pay consultants somewhere in the range of $14 million to $30 million. Again, I can’t get a straight answer from this administration on proposed consultant costs, so this is my best guess. What’s clear is that consultant costs have increased substantially under this administration, which begs the question: Why must we pay outsiders so much to guide the district’s work while also increasing salaries for those already paid to lead the district? Do our current leaders not have the necessary expertise? When they were brought to Nashville, they were certainly billed as experts deserving of higher salaries.

Some of the cuts will surely come from Dr. Joseph’s firing of nearly 100 Reading Recovery teachers. Although Dr. Joseph promised a plan to “repurpose” these teachers, it’s become clear that there is no such plan, and in fact, schools don’t have any money in their budgets to re-hire these teachers. There are also limited positions available for these teachers. So ultimately, it’s most likely that our very best and most highly trained literacy teachers will leave. Many are already retiring or headed to other districts. Despite an ongoing teacher shortage, this doesn’t seem to bother Dr. Joseph and his team, who were actually caught celebrating the firing of these literacy experts after our board meeting.

Finally, the $27.2 million increase requested for employee compensation, including pay raises and step increases, seems impossible now.

This budget season has been a disaster- unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope the Metro Council is prepared to ask the hard questions.

 

A few comments:

First, the reason Mayor Briley is having a tough budget season is because the two previous mayors (with approval from Metro Council) spent heavily from reserve funds to balance budgets. Now, that savings account is depleted and absent new revenue, there’s just not any extra money. Yes, Metro Council needs to ask tough questions of the school budget, but they should also be asking questions about how Nashville got here.

Second, as Frogge notes, it seems likely that two things will happen: Some teachers will lose their jobs and there will be no raises. Both are incredibly problematic. Nashville is experiencing a teacher shortage that has resulted in a shift toward what I’ve called “virtual equality.” Nashville teachers are already underpaid, and not giving raises would only exacerbate this problem.

Third, one reason the MNPS budget is facing problems is a “surprising” drop in students. Somehow, this drop was both unanticipated and created a budget emergency this year.

By way of her post, Frogge points out some possible alternatives. It’s up to the School Board to make a proposal to the Metro Council based on these new numbers. The revisions Dr. Joseph proposes to the MNPS Board will say a lot about his priorities. Metro Council can’t revise the school system’s budget, they can only vote it up or down. However, a budget document that doesn’t address the concerns Frogge raises should be rejected and sent back to MNPS for improvement.

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Amy Frogge on the MNPS Budget


This week, MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge raised concerns about the budget and spending in the district. Here are her full remarks from the most recent budget meeting:

“A budget is a moral document. As an elected official representing all of Nashville’s children, it matters to me that our budget reflects our morals. We must be good stewards of our schools’ resources, and we have an obligation to ensure that the funds entrusted to us are properly spent. Our budget discussions are not personal. They are about the policies that we enact as a board which will affect our community for the next decade or more, and it’s our job to ask the hard questions.

This year’s budget has kept me up at night. Never before have I received so many concerns and questions about the budget, and not just about the changes to Title I funding. A wide variety of concerns about this budget and the district’s spending have been raised.

In pouring over budget materials these last several weeks, I have found more questions than answers and have noted what appear to be a number of financial red flags.

These are the issues that have come to my attention:

1. Over the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in unauthorized purchase requests in the district. An unauthorized purchase request, or UPR, is just what it appears to be: an unauthorized expenditure. Ideally, a UPR is never used because a purchase order should always proceed any purchase, and the only time a UPR should be used is in the case of an emergency, such as broken pipes.

During this administration’s first year, the number of unauthorized purchases increased more than sevenfold – from approximately $300,000 to $2.3 million. The trend continues this year. I am aware that sometimes URPs are triggered by accidental errors, and in a school district as large as ours, there is a certainly a human error percentage to take into account. But the ballooning number of unauthorized expenditures is a very serious problem that warrants investigation.

2. The administration entered into a no bid contract- or some sort of agreement- with Research for Better Teaching, and has paid this company over $100,000 without the required board approval, which is in violation of our board policies. I’ve heard more than one explanation from the administration about the lack of board approval, but the fact of the matter is that this contract was placed on the consent agenda for approval and then pulled immediately when a board member began asking questions. Paying vendors before seeking board approval has been an ongoing problem for this administration.

3. There is an appearance of nepotism happening within our district in a way that benefits a few but that does not benefit our children. New employees with close ties to the new administration are being paid more money for less work, including unexplained stipends and salaries outside the salary schedule. For example, one Chief’s spouse is making a $24,000 stipend in addition to her salary, even though she has less job duties and less employees to supervise than others. Another Chief’s friend is making more than any other elementary school principal, including those with more credentials. MNPS is also paying half the cost for this principal to receive her doctorate. Furthermore, the first draft of this year’s budget proposal reflected much higher pay increases for those at the top of the pay scale than the 2% raise offered to teachers. This was changed when a board member noticed the problem and pushed back.

4. In the first year of this administration, consultant costs grew from $5.1 million to $8.6 million, and some of the new consultants appear to be problematic. For example, last August, the board approved a literacy contract with R.E.A.D. America, LLC, for $150,000. When I searched for information about this company, I was unable to find a website or any other information online. The company appears to be one-woman operation run out of someone’s home in Chicago, and MNPS seems to be the sole source of this person’s income. I also received complaints about another consultant, Bruce Taylor, and decided to look into his background. From Mr. Taylor’s marketing website, I learned that he has no background or training in education, but is instead an actor who now promotes Common Core. The district has paid Mr. Taylor over $100k without board approval, and according to a Channel News 5 story, Mr. Taylor worked in the district six months without a contract.

I am also concerned because I recently learned that an outside organization has brought in the former superintendent of Knox County schools to work with MNPS. He is now attending all executive leadership meetings. According to Knoxville board members, this man ‘left a trail of disaster in his wake.’ Knoxville colleagues tell me their former superintendent spent too much and started too many unsustainable programs, leaving the school system in financial straits. Now that this superintendent is gone, Knox County Schools must cut key programs to make up for the deficit.

5. The administration is piggybacking substantial service contracts, some worth over a million dollars, from contracts in other counties. Piggybacking is a procurement tool that allows for no bid contracts. Piggybacking service contracts, as MNPS has done, is problematic because of the inherent risk of fraud and the potential to get less than the best price. One such no-bid service contract with Performance Matters was piggybacked from contracts in Shelby County, TN and Orange County, FL, for a total of $1.1 million. Yet, the Performance Matters contracts filed with the Metro Clerk’s office show that the contracts with Performance Matters are not to exceed $1.8 million. I want to know why the board was not consulted on this change.

Performance Matters is affiliated with non-profit company called Education Research and Development Institute, ERDI. According to a News Channel 5 story last week, Dr. Felder has received consulting fees from ERDI. ERDI partners include a number of other companies to which the district has awarded large contracts, including Discovery Education, for $13 million, and Scholastic, which hosted 10 Metro employees, including Dr. Felder, at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island in February 2017. According to a News Channel 4 story, MNPS helped pay for the Amelia Island conference, but Scholastic also comped rooms for MNPS employees at the five-star hotel, where rooms typically cost $700 per night. Contract discussions with Scholastic took place on Amelia Island, and immediately after the conference, administrators tried to place an extremely large contract with Scholastic on the board agenda. It was pulled when a board member questioned it. A couple of months later, in April 2017, the board approved a two-month contract for Scholastic to supply classroom libraries for $140,000. I would like to know how much Scholastic paid for the Amelia Island conference and for MNPS attendees specifically, including room fees, meals, drinks, or any other perks, as well as any consulting fees.

We need an investigation into all consulting fees garnered by MNPS employees, particularly those related to companies affiliated with ERDI. I would also like to know which contracts with ERDI partner companies were no-bid contracts.

So in sum, these are the problems as I see them: questionable contracts, consultants, and expenditures; overpaid employees; and at the very least, a disregard of proper procurement procedures. These problems have been amplified in light of the way the budget has been handled this season. With regard to contracts and consultants, the common theme seems to be avoidance of board scrutiny. That is the very opposite of transparency.

Due to ‘budget constraints’ this year, the district has already cut paper, toner, and other basic supplies from schools, curtailed professional development trainings starting in February, removed funding for school plays, cut out year-end student celebrations, and in general defunded the efforts of those on the ground- the very people who touch children’s lives daily. And now this administration has proposed cutting seven social workers and our free and reduced lunch program next year. It would be possible to make up for much of the shortfall just by cutting salaries and raises at the top of the scale. For example, excluding benefits, vacation days, raises, consulting fees and other perks, our Director and his five Chiefs alone earn salaries totaling over around $1.2 million dollars. This would pay for 22 social workers. Of course, we must pay our leaders reasonable salaries, but in a budget crunch, it’s critical that we keep our priorities straight.

All of this is disappointing and distressing because I have placed my full support behind this administration. I believe the board and administration have done excellent high-level work during the last two years, and it’s difficult to reconcile the work we’ve done with the issues I’ve raised. But it turns out that where the rubber meets the road, the focus is not really on students.

This board must engage in difficult conversations about the district’s spending, and we have an obligation to make policy corrections wherever necessary. I propose that we immediately reduce the amount on contracts that the board approves, that we prohibit any further consulting fees by district employees, at least until the audit is complete, and that we discuss installing an internal auditor that reports directly to the board to oversee MNPS spending. This board has a fiscal obligation to do the right thing, and I hope we will take swift corrective action.”

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

2018 Legislative Preview


The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.

Testing

Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.

RTI

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.

Vouchers

Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

The Easy Way Out


While Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in middle Tennessee and the lowest of any county with a population over 100,000, County Commissioners and the County Mayor are now pushing a sales tax increase scheme that will ultimately rest with local voters.

All of this comes about because the Williamson County Commission continues to exhibit a preference for low taxes and lattes over investment in schools.

Here’s more from the Tennessean on the sales tax effort:

Pushing for an increase in the county’s sales tax to help fund future school projects was a cornerstone of Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson’s 15th annual State of the County Address.

The final passage of the proposed 25-cent sales tax increase would be left up to residents in a county-wide referendum, but Anderson has been visiting the county’s six municipalities over the past several weeks in efforts to convince cities to agree to an inter-local agreement that would allocate a portion of new revenue to cover debt service for schools.

“The school system could see an additional $60 million by the arrangements we’re working on for three years,” Anderson said.

All of that sounds great — until you realize this is the most regressive way to raise revenue. Oh, and it has to be approved by voters.

I saw this scenario play out in Sumner County in 2012. County Commissioners faced pressure to raise revenue for a school system growing rapidly. The Commission could not pass a property tax increase. Instead, they put a wheel tax increase on the ballot — twice. It failed both times.

After the wheel tax increase failed twice, County Commissioners ran around saying voters didn’t want a tax increase at all, not even a property tax increase. So, the school budget would have to be cut.

Here’s how this movie ended: Voters turned out in record numbers in 2014 in Sumner County to elect new County Commissioners. The new commissioners promised to explore every option to raise revenue for a county that hadn’t seen a property tax increase in 12 years.

A property tax increase was passed that allowed Sumner County to invest in schools and other needs while still maintaining the second-lowest property tax rate in middle Tennessee. The school system now has a budget that is funded by the revenue generated from a growing county with a low tax rate.

Williamson County is in an even more enviable position than Sumner. Williamson has the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee — by 35 cents. Each one penny increase in the property tax generates $1 million in revenue. A 10-cent property tax increase would generate $10 million — more than enough to fund this year’s budget request — and would still give Williamson the lowest tax rate in the region by 25 cents.

What Mayor Anderson is pitching now may sound like good news. It’s not a long-term solution, though. Even if it somehow passed, the sales tax increase and inter-local agreement scheme is just kicking the can down the road.

Here’s the alternative (best) option: Raise property taxes a modest amount — maintain your system’s reputation for excellent schools AND enjoy the lowest property tax rate in the Nashville region.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport