A Nashville Reality Check

While Nashville is now the largest city in Tennessee and among the fastest-growing in the nation, a new report reveals that for many, the economy just isn’t working. Fox 17 reports on a study that reveals Nashville is a national leader in percentage of students living in poverty. Here’s more:


Music City is breaking national records, but not in a good way this time. According to a new report by Metro Social Services, the city ranks ninth in the country for students living in poverty in comparison to other districts. The three page report was presented to the 11 member Minority Caucus of the Metro Council on Monday.


The report found half of the city’s workforce makes less than $35,000 a year and when companies move to town, a majority of those jobs go to those not from Nashville. The report also shows working class families are starting to leave Nashville. Moreover, at least seven people a day are relocating.

The report comes amid a major budget crisis in the city and follows previous reporting indicating Nashville’s teachers are paid well below what it takes to actually live in the city.


Imagine working for 25 years in the same profession, earning an advanced degree in your field, and making $7000 less than the “comfortable living” salary for your city? That’s what’s happening in MNPS.

What’s perhaps most striking about these numbers is that Nashville’s leaders have been aware of these issues for years and have so far done little to actually address them.

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Wish List

Nashville attorney Jamie Hollin takes on the Chamber of Commerce as he discusses the “Adopt-a-Teacher” program. Here are some highlights:


Our elected officials have chronically underfunded public education in Tennessee at virtually every level. The fact we rank near the bottom in the U.S. in per-pupil spending should surprise no one.


But governments have accomplices, and one of them here is the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has consistently advocated for policies that undercut our public schools.


When Mayor Karl Dean proposed a modest 53-cent property tax increase in 2012, largely to increase pay for early career teachers and make Metro schools more competitive, the Chamber had to be dragged into supporting it. When the school board joined a lawsuit to force the state to live up to their promises and fully fund schools, the Chamber was and has been silent.

The Chamber has been vocal about supporting charter schools, though, and unabated charter growth now accounts for $130 million that could be going to traditional public schools. The Chamber has also supported vouchers in the past and now Gov. Bill Lee’s plan looks like it will take another $330 million out of public schools in Davidson and Shelby counties by 2024.

Read more from Hollin about the Nashville Chamber and the current “budget crisis” that may prevent further investment in Nashville’s public schools.

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Mendes on MNPS Pay Raise

Nashville Metro Council Member-at-Large Bob Mendes offers thoughts on the mid-year pay raise for Nashville teachers. Here is his blog post on the topic:

This morning, the Mayor announced that he had identified a mechanism to pay MNPS employees the 3% raise that Mayor Briley promised them would start on January 1, 2020. Before I explain how it is being funded, some background:

  • The Briley announcement happened in July right AFTER the budget was finalized. He claimed that there would be recurring revenue of $7.5 million per year and that it wouldn’t need Council approval. The source was going to be a re-financing of some MDHA tax increment financing loans with Regions Bank. The announcement was criticized widely as a campaign gimmick. Even inside Metro, nobody understood how it was going to be recurring and nobody understood how to get all $7.5 million to MNPS.
  • This entire conversation about a post-budget, no Council approval, supposedly recurring mid-year raise for MNPS happened only because the Metro government has systematically short-changed employees on pay for many years now.

What was Briley’s plan?

Briley’s administration announced that the $7.5 million would come for an MDHA TIF loan restructuring. I wrote about the details of this funding mechanism in July. There were two things that weren’t known at the time — was it really recurring, and how would MDHA get all of the refinancing proceeds.

About the “recurring” issue, the current administration tells me (and the Mayor said this morning) that this is not recurring. Even back in July, MDHA acknowledged that this funding would require an annual waiver by Regions of its rights to keep the $7.5 million themselves. At best, both in July and now, you could say that you expect that it will continue to happen. But there is no legal right for Metro to get the $7.5 million in future years. That is up to the discretion of the bank, I am told.

About the “how does MNPS get the full $7.5 million” issue…this is complicated. This $7.5 million is property tax money. To understand why the prior administration’s assertion that all $7.5 million would go to MNPS was questionable, you have to understand how property tax money flows through the operating budget. Boring stuff. But important here.

I wrote a TIF step-by-step post in 2018 that explains the process. In summary though, all property tax revenue is automatically divided between Metro’s six “Funds.” Focus on the word “automatically.” Upon receipt of property tax revenue, the money is automatically divided among the six Funds. So the Briley idea that all $7.5 million would go to one of the six Funds — the School Fund — was inconsistent with the way Metro handles property tax revenue.

Under the current operating budget, the School Fund gets about 31.5% of all property tax revenue — so roughly one-third of property tax revenue. Under the Briley plan, nobody ever explained how the other two-thirds that would be allocated automatically to the other five Metro Funds would make its way over to MNPS — especially without Council approval as had been suggested.

What is Cooper’s plan?

At the press conference today, the administration explained that there are two sources to pay for the $7.5 million needed for the January 1 MNPS raise — the MDHA TIF refinancing and “Fund Balance” money.

They told us that $2.5 million would come from the MDHA loan deal with Regions Bank. This matches up with how the automatic allocation of property tax revenue works. That means that the waiver from Regions was worth $7.5 million and, of that amount, approximately one-third ($2.5 million) was allocated to MNPS.

(We should pay attention to the other $5 million that went to other Funds. I believe this means that the city just got $5 million closer to closing the $41.5 million gap in the current year operating budget.)

The administration also told us today that the rest of the $7.5 million is coming from Fund Balance money. The Fund Balance is basically money that has been appropriated in prior years but is unspent. It is typically impossible to get a budget to be spent precisely to the dollar. For obvious reasons, it is better for a department to come in better than budget rather than over budget. When a department ends a year without having spent all the money it was appropriated, the unused money is called “Fund Balance.” Ideally, you would have the Fund Balance accumulate slowly over time.

The Comptroller had two slides that referred to MNPS’s Fund Balance. Like the rest of Metro’s operating budget, for several years now, we have making ends meet at MNPS by using up the accumulated Fund Balance. The audited numbers show that, as of June 30, 2016, the MNPS Fund Balance was about $74 million. Two years later, as of June 30, 2018, the MNPS Fund Balance had eroded to about $35 million. Mayor’s Cooper’s plan is to use Fund Balance money to pay for the rest of the January 1 raises.

Handling the raise this way will require both school board and Council approval in December 2019.

What does it all mean?

Mayor Cooper was clear today that these are not recurring revenues. He committed to work with MNPS and the Council to find recurring revenue in the next full year budget to make this pay increase permanent.

The threshold question we are all facing is whether the city will honor Mayor Briley’s promise to provide the January 1 raises to MNPS. There are nothing but bad answers here — we can either disregard the promise as a flawed gimmick and further push MNPS morale in a bad direction, or we can pay for it with non-recurring revenue (coupled with a verbal promise to make it recurring in the next budget).

I support the decision to fund this. As a city, we have to start on the road to repairing employee compensation somewhere. They deserve this and more.

I support this mechanism for funding the January 1 raise. Briley came up with a mechanism that was not recurring and that was inconsistent with how Metro’s finances work. Cooper has a mechanism that he is transparently saying is not recurring, but at least makes sense within the framework of Metro’s finances.

Do I wish this raise had been funded in the June 2018 budget process? Yes.

Do I wish this raise had been funded in the June 2019 budget process? Yes.

Do I wish the former Mayor hadn’t unilaterally volunteered a raise that wasn’t covered in his own budget? Yes.

Is it good to continue to spend down Fund Balance money? No, not really.

But we are where we are — the promise was made. Employees have counted on it. My decision is that I’d rather pay for these raises and deal with finding recurring revenue in the next full year budget than yet again have Metro renege on a pay promise to employees.

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Nothing to Win, Nothing Left to Lose

Nashville can’t live without its teachers, but it seems the city’s leaders can’t live with the idea of actually paying them. While the need to improve pay for teachers has been clear for years, Mayor Cooper recently announced yet another study to determine what can be done with teacher pay. Now, Nashville finds itself in a budget crisis, short the money needed to meet this year’s obligations. That crisis has caused some to question whether the funds for a promised mid-year teacher raise will actually be available.

Metro Nashville Public Schools teachers union leaders are worried that an anticipated 3% raise for educators in January may be in danger after comments from Mayor John Cooper’s administration Friday evening. 

The concern was exacerbated by a weak statement from Mayor Cooper’s office:


“In light of the Comptroller’s report this week, we are doing everything possible to make the raise happen. The finance director is working with MNPS to determine the sources of funds.”

Additionally, at-large Metro Councilman Bob Mendes took to Twitter this weekend to explain how the promised raise came about and indicate a bit of a conflict in terms of whether it should be given:

Here’s the bottom line: Metro Nashville has been giving tax breaks to developers and companies like Amazon for years now. These tax giveaways mean new revenue from growth is already spent. Simultaneously, Nashville has been ignoring the looming crisis in teacher compensation. Now, those two trains are colliding.

The next question: If there’s no raise for teachers in January, will there be teachers in classrooms in January?

Nashville has teachers with nothing to win and now nothing left to lose.

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F****** Furious

The head of the teachers’ union in Nashville is furious. Not only that, she’s also taking action. Sure, she ran for and won the presidency of MNEA, but Amanda Kail is not about to rest now. Here’s more straight from Amanda on what’s happening with teachers in Nashville.

In the past two weeks, I have spoken with dozens of teachers in several schools across the district. And you know what? It doesn’t matter what school I am at- the problems are THE SAME. Toxic work environments, overwhelming workloads, not enough teaching resources, unfair evaluations, school buildings badly in need of repair, not enough support for students, violence and trauma, debilitating levels of stress, being expected to work more and more while wages stagnate and our city turns into a playground for the rich that none of us can afford.

Over and over I hear, “What are you going to do about…? When is MNEA going to…Well what about….?”

What am I going to do about it?

As one person, I can use my voice to share those stories to people in power. I can make phone calls, go to meetings, and speak with the press. But I am just one person. I cannot single-handedly change what many powerful people have created over many years.

The current state of our schools and our profession as teachers is no accident. Public education has been deliberately, chronically underfunded by our city and our state. Why? Because there is a lot of money to be made off of “failing schools”. The teaching profession has been hijacked because teacher unions represent the largest and most powerful remaining sector of the labor movement. Because the labor movement brought more wealth and prosperity to everyday people than anything else in history. So if you are a teacher and you feel like every day is some new fresh hell that has been designed to break you, you are correct. They are out to get you.

But here’s the thing. Someone once accused me of being way too positive on social media. They were insulted by what they saw as me refusing to voice the bitterness that so many teachers feel. “You are just too positive to really understand how we feel!” this teacher told me.

Here’s my secret. Just like Bruce Banner, I’m always angry. https://youtu.be/_Qq6dQwLh1s

In fact, I am fucking furious. And I refuse to relinquish one iota of power to the forces that want to tear us down. I refuse to say I am powerless because I’m not.

Instead, I will tell you that together we are powerful. When Nashville teachers stand up together, we can accomplish anything we want. And when we build a movement where we intentionally stand together with other communities and other workers, we will be so big and so powerful that NOTHING. WILL. STOP. US.

So what are you going to do about it?

1. Join MNEA
2. Join Nashville Red4Ed
3. Join us at Bargaining for the Common Good on Thursday.
4. Organize together. Fight like hell. Win everything.

It starts now.

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MNEA Statement on Teacher Raises

In light of recent concerns regarding the financial health of Metro Nashville, the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) put out this statement regarding the planned teacher raises scheduled to take effect in January. It’s worth noting the uncertainty regarding the funds for teacher pay comes at a time when teachers in Nashville are already paid at a rate well below the cost of living.

In MNEA’s first meeting with MNPS leadership after school began in August, and other subsequent meetings, Vice President Michele Sheriff and President Amanda Kail inquired about the status of Briley’s promised 3% raise for teachers in January. After speaking to Mayor Cooper’s office, MNPS leadership assured MNEA the raises were indeed going to occur. No additional monies were required because the necessary funds already existed in the MNPS budget as a TIF (tax increment financing) expenditure that was renegotiated for this year.

With the recent release of the state comptroller’s report that shows Metro Finances short $200-300 million, MNEA reached out to MNPS leadership to confirm the raises are not in jeopardy. MNPS leadership has in turn been waiting for a response from the Mayor to confirm. After MNPS received no response, MNEA contacted Mayor Cooper’s office and this afternoon received this statement:

“In light of the Comptroller’s report this week, we are doing everything possible to make the raise happen. The finance director is working with MNPS to determine the sources of funds.”

While there is no evidence to suggest the funds will not be available, we look forward to a confirmation from Mayor Cooper of the promised 3% raise in January and on which paycheck teachers should expect it to begin.

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School Board Asked to Help in Wage Theft Case

The Nashville Scene has a story on Armanda Arzate and his pursuit of unpaid wages for work his company performed at Nashville’s McMurray Middle School:

On Tuesday night, a cement worker and several advocates asked the Metro Board of Public Education to help secure unpaid wages for work he and his crew did on a Nashville school. Armando Arzate of RSA Concrete said he and his cousin are owed $43,000 for their work on McMurray Middle School.

Arzate is being assisted in his case by local worker advocacy group Workers’ Dignity. Here’s more on the issue from a press release from the organization:

Between August 2018 and May 2019, Armando Arzate and fellow workers at RSA Concrete put long hours of skilled labor into McMurray Middle School’s renovation, pouring concrete for new sidewalks, ramps, and other projects. Metro Nashville Public Schools contracted with Orion Building Corporation, their frequent construction partner, to oversee the project. Orion then subcontracted with Joe Haas Construction Company for cement work, and Joe Haas Construction hired Armando and his team at RSA Concrete. Despite having finished the job in May of 2019, Armando and his team are still seeking $43,000 they say they are owed for their work. Armando and the other workers, with the support of community members, MNPS parents, and Vanderbilt Divinity School students, have repeatedly requested that Joe Haas Construction and Orion Building Corporation do the morally right thing. 

It is not yet clear whether MNPS will intervene on behalf of the workers owed money.

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MNEA Backs Stacy

As Nashville’s Metro Council considers candidates to replace Will Pinkston on the School Board, the Metro Nashville Education Association has weighed-in in support of Kevin Stacy. Here’s their endorsement:

First, the MNEA PACE Council would like to state that the decision to endorse was very difficult based on the excellent qualities of two candidates. We feel that both Freda Player and Kevin Stacy would be strong advocates for MNPS employees and would use their votes and their voices to defend public education in our city. However, after much deliberation, the PACE Council voted to endorse Kevin Stacy for the position.

This decision was made based on a number of factors. First, one of Mr. Stacy’s top priorities is improving the culture of our working environment within MNPS, which we see as imperative if the district is to successfully attract and retain the professional educators it needs. Secondly, Mr. Stacy has worked as a teacher and understands the particular nuances of the struggles we face. Finally, in an area that has such a heavy concentration of EL students, we feel that Mr. Stacy’s proven experience as the Executive Director of MNPS EL Services will make him an excellent advocate for the families of District 7.

The MNEA PACE Council would like to thank both Freda Player and Kevin Stacy for their thoughtful responses to our questions and their hard work and commitment to making Nashville a better place. While the decision was difficult, we are hopeful that public school advocates may become the norm for local candidates going forward. Ultimately, it’s a good problem to have.

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Necessary

It looks like Nashville is finally getting serious about addressing their woefully inadequate teacher pay. Or, at least they are talking about it. The Tennessean reports that the Metro Nashville school board is taking up the issue of pay for teachers and all system staff.

Boosting the salaries of Nashville teachers to match the city’s median income would cost more than $100 million a year. 

Although just an example detailed in a pay study released by Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday, it represents the high figure the district would need to fix a pay system educators say is flawed and causing teachers to leave.


For example, Majors presented a possible scenario in which the district would pay mid-career teachers about $64,000 a year — comparable to Nashville’s median income. The increase in salary for all teachers of all experience levels would mean an annual infusion of $100 million to fix the district’s pay schedule.

The discussion on teacher pay in MNPS is long overdue. Also long overdue: Actual action by the School Board and Metro Council to increase pay.

It’s been clear for some time now that teacher pay in Nashville is a crisis:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?

That was written in 2017. The story notes a 2015 analysis of teacher pay in Nashville. That analysis found Nashville significantly behind similar urban districts in pay. The MNPS board and Metro Council did basically nothing with that information. We’ve seen Mayors Dean, Barry, and Briley barely touch the issue. We’ve yet to see Mayor Cooper talk about a plan to boost pay in a meaningful way.

IF the issue gets addressed in the upcoming budget cycle, it will be August of 2020 before Nashville teachers see a meaningful boost in their paychecks. That’s five years after teacher pay in Nashville was reported to be at near crisis levels. It’s after allowing things like this to happen:

Hundreds of parents with children in Metro Nashville Public Schools had letters sent home this week telling them that their kids were having to take online courses in the classroom due to a teacher shortage.

It’s after school districts like Williamson County have made consistent improvements to salary and districts like Sumner County have approved a big pay bump.

It’s great to see the district finally take a look at a problem they’ve known about for years. It’s absolutely necessary that instead of just talking about it, the School Board, Council, and Mayor actually do something.

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Player-Peters Gains Support for School Board Seat

With School Board member Will Pinkston finalizing his resignation, the Metro Council will select a replacement. It seems Freda Player-Peters is gaining traction as a candidate for the seat. The person appointed will serve the remainder of Pinkston’s term, which ends in August 2020. Here’s a letter from a number of council members in support of Player-Peters:

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