Show Them the Money!

Nashville’s charter schools were not shy about applying for federal paycheck protection funds to supplement their budgets. Jason Freeman has the details:

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Emily’s List

Emily Masters is running for Metro Nashville School Board and she has a list. When asked to name her top priorities if elected, Masters listed clearly:

Funding. Equity. Student Health and Wellness.

Emily served on the PTO Board of Dan Mills Elementary where her children attended school. She ran a dance school and she’s now a fundraising consultant.

When asked what she thought of the current budget situation in MNPS, she noted she supports Mayor Cooper’s efforts to find funding in a difficult time. She supports raising taxes as a means to providing the funding Metro schools need.

More specifically, she mentioned her concerns around teacher compensation. While Masters wants to ensure Metro teachers are competitively compensated, she also suggested moving beyond simply pay in order to attract and retain teachers.

One area of particular concern is the cost of housing in Nashville. Masters noted that other districts have found innovative ways to fund housing for educators, and that’s an area she’d like to explore if elected to the MNPS Board.

When it comes to Health and Wellness, Masters said that the COVID-19 crisis shows that Metro Schools is about more than just educating kids. MNPS is a tremendous community resource, one that provides food and emotional support and safety to many in the community. Masters said we can and should do even more with the infrastructure around schools. That is to say, schools can offer more and be an even stronger, more powerful tool for community impact and change.

Emily Masters has a list. It’s a list for change and growth in MNPS. She believes in building on the great leadership team of Mayor Cooper and Dr. Battler and making Metro Schools the absolute best they can be.

Find out more about Emily here.

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Nashville school board members Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, Fran Bush are suing for the right to speak out about former Director of Schools Shawn Joseph. They’ve filed a formal complaint alleging a clause in his separation agreement violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Here’s more from the complaint filed today.

This case arises out of a 5-3 vote by the Metropolitan Nashville Board of
Public Education to censor—under penalty of personal liability—the Plaintiffs’ truthful criticism of Defendant Shawn Joseph, Nashville’s former Director of Schools. The censorship at issue was effected through a content-based “disparaging or defamatory comments” clause in ex-Director Joseph’s severance agreement. Among other defects, the clause contravenes the First Amendment and deprives the Plaintiffs’ constituents of their right to hear and receive information from their elected representatives. The
Plaintiffs thus seek a declaratory judgment that the offending clause is unconstitutional and an order permanently enjoining its enforcement.

The Severance Agreement became effective on April 17, 2019. The
Severance Agreement also included mutual, content-based “disparaging or defamatory comments” clauses that purported to censor and prevent: (1) Joseph, (2) the School Board, and (3) the School Board’s individual members, including the Plaintiffs—all public officials with roles that carry significant public interest—from disparaging one another or making truthful statements about one another that would “tend[] to harm a person’s
reputation by subjecting the person to public contempt, disgrace or ridicule, or by adversely affecting the person’s business.”

The School Board Censorship Clause forbids the Plaintiffs—three duly
elected officials who have a duty and obligation to their constituents—from speaking candidly and honestly with their constituents and with other elected officials, including one another, about matters essential to their offices and their official duties.


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Coronavirus and School Funding in Nashville

$100 million. That’s how much the already struggling Nashville school district is being asked to cut in the wake of the economic challenges created by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Tennessean has more:

Mayor John Cooper has asked Nashville schools to explore ways to potentially cut up to $100 million from its current budget as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the city’s revenue collections.

As non-essential businesses remain closed and Nashville residents are spending less time outside, city officials are forecasting a $200 million to $300 million shortfall in expected taxes and other revenue for the current fiscal year. 

The potential budget cuts come even as Gov. Bill Lee insisted on $41 million in state funding for his voucher scheme while cutting funds sent to districts for teacher compensation.

Teachers in Nashville already lag behind those in other districts when it comes to pay.

It’s not clear where MNPS will find room for cuts, but based on past actions, it seems likely some savings would be realized by moving more students to virtual schools. It also seems likely entire programs could be reduced or eliminated.

This difficult climate is happening in a state that clearly has yet to learn the lessons of the Great Recession. Tennessee is at least $1.7 billion behind where it should be to adequately fund schools, according to a report from the bipartisan legislative study group known as TACIR.

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The Candidates

Yesterday, MNPS school board members Amy Frogge and Jill Speering announced they would not seek re-election. In 2019, Will Pinkston left the board, replaced by Freda Player-Peters. Now, there’s an election for some school board seats coming up in August. Here are the candidates:

District 1

Barry Barlow

Tiffany Degrafinreid

Sharon Gentry

Robert Taylor

District 3

Brian Hubert

Emily Masters

District 5

Christiane Buggs

District 7

Freda Player-Peters

District 9

Russelle Ann Bradbury

Abigail Tylor

Here are a couple of candidate tweets:

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Frogge Won’t Seek Re-Election

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge announced today she will not seek re-election to her seat this year. She’s served two terms and beaten well-funded opponents by a 2-1 margin in both of her past races.

Here’s her announcement:

I have struggled with the decision of whether to run again for school board during this unusual time of uncertainty and upheaval. The last few weeks – dealing with the aftermath of the tornado, the coronavirus quarantine, and a personal bout with a minor illness – have provided me with a different perspective.

When I ran in 2012, I never intended to serve more than one term. This freed me to vote simply as I saw best and to take difficult positions that were often against my own political interests. I chose to run again four years ago because I felt it was necessary given the political climate at that time.

Upon reflection this week, however, I have decided not to seek reelection this year. I am deeply grateful for the support I’ve received and the friendships I have forged during my time on the school board, as well as for the learning opportunities I’ve been provided through this position. Serving in an elected position is not for the faint of heart, but I hope I have made a positive impact, and I think it is time to step away to new endeavors. I will continue to be deeply involved in advocating for Tennessee’s students and schools and plan stay active on my social media pages.

I have decided to throw my support behind Abigail Tylor, Nashville School Board District 9, a former teacher in the Encore gifted program who taught both of my children. As a teacher and parent of children who attend MNPS schools, Abigail is well-informed about the issues and the needs in our school system, and she’ll do a wonderful job serving our community and carrying on the work that I (and others before me) have begun. With Dr. Battle now at the helm of Metro Schools and with continued good representation for our district, I truly believe great things are going to happen in MNPS over the next few years. I hope you will support Abigail in her work!

I am also excited to formally announce my new role as Executive Director of Pastors for Tennessee Children. The Pastors for Children network, which is expanding nationwide, brings together faith leaders to serve schools and to advocate statewide for public education. I’m honored to be a part of this group, and I hope you will follow my work with the Pastors, as well!

Thank you for believing in me and for the experience of serving. Please continue to support our local schools! I’ll see you in the neighborhood.

Diane Ravitch and Amy Frogge

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The Battle is Over

Metro Nashville Public Schools removed the “interim” tag from Adrienne Battle’s title today. The Board voted to end the current search for a Director of Schools and give the job to Battle, who has held it on an interim basis since Shawn Joseph left the position.

The Tennessean has more:

During a specially called meeting on Friday, the Metro Nashville Schools Board decided not to continue its search and appointed Adrienne Battle as superintendent. Battle has led the district since last year.

Board Chair Anna Shepherd said she asked for the motion to appoint Battle to allow for continuity as the city recovers from tornado damage and as Nashville grapples with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Battle’s actions and her calm leadership over the last week have been celebrated.

“While adhering to the search process is vitally important, I understand we must respond rapidly to changing circumstances and provide stability,” Shepherd said.

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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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