A Taxing Vote

Voters in Williamson County approved a sales tax hike expected to generate some $60 million in revenue dedicated to school construction.

The Tennessean has more:

The tax increase — from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent — is projected to raise about $60 million over three years to help pay for  school construction.

“Voters overwhelming support public education and have agreed to use sales tax to fund schools,” said Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney. “I am surprised at the margin. I thought it would be a tight race but it’s a 2-for-1 margin. This is a huge victory tonight for the commission’s plan for the school district.”

More on Williamson County school funding:

The Williamson County Game

Got mine, want more

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


 

 

The Williamson County Game

Public education advocate Kim Henke writes about the tax game going on in Williamson County as the state’s wealthiest county “struggles” to fund schools.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

I’m embarrassed that last summer, WCS had to cut $6 million from the operational budget because the County Commission wouldn’t do the right thing and raise property taxes ahead of an election year. There is no reason that the 7th wealthiest county in the nation with the lowest property tax rate in Middle TN and the lowest in the state among communities with >100,000 residents should have to cut new teacher positions, counselors, and special ed staff. We shouldn’t have so many portables. We shouldn’t have kids in overcrowded schools eating lunch at 9:45 in the morning. We shouldn’t have roving teachers with carts teaching class in hallways and closets. We shouldn’t have principals mopping floors because the roof leaks. We shouldn’t have underpaid teachers and support staff who often work two jobs and can’t afford to live in Williamson County.
I’m embarrassed that WCS is in the bottom 10 of Tennessee’s 141 school districts in per pupil expenditures in a state that’s in the bottom 10 of PPE nationwide.
This is a fake funding crisis.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Got Mine, Want More

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s Education Committee voted unanimously Monday night in favor of a resolution supporting changes in the state’s BEP formula that would direct additional state resources to the wealthiest county in the state. Williamson County is also the 7th wealthiest county in the United States.

The Williamson Herald reports:

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s education committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a resolution of support for state legislation that would modify the Basic Education Program (BEP) to provide Williamson County and others a more reasonable allotment of state funding for education.

I suppose “reasonable allotment” is in the eye of the beholder.

The state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP, is designed to provide all districts a base level of funding to support public education. The formula came about in response to a successful lawsuit by small, rural districts who sued suggesting the way the state was funding schools was unequal. In 1992, the General Assembly enacted the Education Improvement Act which included the Basic Education Plan (BEP) as a new school funding formula. One of the primary goals of this formula was (and still is) equity.

What the legislation sponsored by Jack Johnson would do is direct additional state resources to the five school districts in the state with the greatest ability to pay.

While the BEP certainly has shortcomings, I would suggest finding ways to direct more state funds to a county quite capable (but unwilling) to dedicate local resources to schools is not a very responsible use of state taxpayer dollars. To be clear, improving the BEP by making formula adjustments (adding a component for RTI, for example), would necessarily mean additional funds going to Williamson County.

Here are some fun facts about the county now begging the state for more cash:

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Middle Tennessee.

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Tennessee with a population over 100,000.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state of Tennessee and 7th wealthiest in the United States.

Williamson County Commissioners have been reluctant to raise property taxes in order to continue to provide resources to schools.

An analysis of household income compared to property tax rates in similar affluent communities reveals that Williamson County’s tax burden is incredibly low. The chart below comes from public policy professor Ken Chilton, who teaches at Tennessee State:

That red bar on the chart is Williamson County, with a property tax burden on a $500,000 home of just over $3000. That’s just over 3% of the average household income, far lower than similar communities in Tennessee and across the country. Plus, as Chilton notes, Tennesseans pay no personal income tax.

Despite these facts, Williamson County Commissioners are headed to the state with their hands out, begging for more help.

Tennessee is a state making long overdue improvements in public education. As more state dollars become available, those dollars should absolutely be invested in continuing to improve our public schools. By closing the teacher pay gap, for example.

Giving money to those districts that have the ability to generate funds on their own but won’t is not a pressing need in our state. In fact, doing so would only serve to exacerbate the inequity the BEP was intended to address. Of course, these Williamson County Commissioners aren’t concerned about inequity. They are clearly concerned about ensuring one of America’s wealthiest communities continues to pay bargain basement prices for its public schools.

Policymakers should reject this rich get richer scheme and focus on education needs that will benefit every district and lift up those least able to generate funds for schools.

 

 

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


 

More TNReady Fallout

As the state continues to experience challenges with TNReady implementation, districts are speaking out. In October, the Williamson County school board adopted resolutions asking for changes to how the state will assign letter grades to schools and asking that TNReady scores not be included in report cards for students in grades 3-5.

This week, Knox County adopted three resolutions relevant to the current testing troubles.

All three were sponsored by Board Member Amber Rountree.

One addresses the proposed letter grading of individual schools and asks:

The Knox County Board of Education hereby urges the Senate to amend legislation SB 535 in the upcoming session by assigning a school level designation that aligns with the district designation, rather than assigning a letter grade to each school; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, The Knox County Board of Education hereby urges Governor Haslam, the State Board of Education, and the Tennessee General Assembly to consider a moratorium in using any school or district designation based on data obtained via the TNReady assessment which was administered in School Year 2016-17.

Another relates to the use of TNReady data for student grades and teacher evaluation:

The Knox County Board of Education opposes the use of TCAP data for any percentage of teacher evaluations and student grades for School Year 2017-2018 and urges the General Assembly and the State Board of Education to provide a one-year waiver, as was previously provided for School Year 2015-2016.

And then there’s one similar to Williamson’s request to exclude TNReady data from report cards for students in grades 3-5:

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education submits student scores on the Tennessee comprehensive assessment program’s grades 3-5 achievement test scores should not comprise a percentage of the student’s final grade for the spring semester in the areas of mathematics, reading/language arts, science and social studies.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED BY THE KNOX COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION AS FOLLOWS: The Knox County Board of Education hereby urges the Tennessee General Assembly amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-1-617 to remove the requirement of using any portion of the Tennessee comprehensive assessment program scores as a percentage of the students in grades 3-5 spring semester grade

 

No word yet on a response to these two districts speaking out on the proper use of TNReady data.

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


 

 

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.

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


 

 

Budget Day in Williamson County

From a post on the Williamson Strong Facebook page:

Today’s the big day! The County Commission will spend the whole day discussing and voting on “approximately 50 resolutions concerning the county budget, including a total county general budget proposal of $557 million, a school budget of $337 million, various capital projects and over 20 new positions in county government.”

In advance of today’s meeting, the WCSB cut the proposed 2017-18 WCS budget by $6 million “eliminating multiple proposed instructional positions, including counselors, special education support staff and proposed central office positions.” With the cut eliminating the need for a tax increase this year, the school budget should be approved with little debate.

“Looney explained that if the school district is forced to cut its budget again in other areas next year, and beyond, to avoid a tax increase, with no incoming revenue, the school district will be unable to maintain its current high level of service.”

You might think from reading this that Williamson County is struggling financially. Or that they lack the fiscal capacity to maintain a high level of school services. But, the reality is they simply have a County Commission that prefers lattes to tax increases.

As I noted previously:

So, the School Board passed budget cuts of $6 million this week. The alternative would have been for the County Commission to raise property taxes by six cents. That would cost a taxpayer with a $400,000 home $60 a year. Or, one Starbucks drink a month.

While this may not be a huge setback this year, it’s unsustainable in a district growing as rapidly as Williamson County. At some point, the level of service provided to students will noticeably suffer. Until then, have another Caramel Macchiato.

Director of Schools Mike Looney echoed that sentiment when he noted that if this type of budgeting continues, Williamson County will no longer be able to provide the high level of service students and families have come to appreciate and expect.

While no one likes higher taxes, Williamson’s are comparatively low:

Here’s what’s interesting: A property tax increase of 6 cents would basically cover the projected shortfall. Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in Middle Tennessee. It’s 35 cents lower than the second-lowest, which is Sumner County. A 6 cent increase would mean Williamson’s tax rate would still be the lowest, and still be 29 cents lower than Sumner. It would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at $400,000 roughly $60 a year.

Also low: Williamson County’s spending relative to top performing counties. In other words, Williamson County Schools is getting the maximum bang for taxpayer bucks:

Of the top 10 districts in terms of academic performance (measured by ACT/TCAP), WCS has the lowest per pupil expenditure. WCS spends only $8,945 per student – $1,790 less than the average PPE of the top 10 districts.

In spite of all the evidence and data, and the enviable position of being a high-performing school district with relatively low investment per student and the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee, Williamson County is set to start down a path that could result in losing ground. It may not be noticed in the 2017-18 school year, but as Looney notes, if the trend continues, there will be a loss of services.

How long will Williamson County Commissioners hold on to the myth that you can have excellent schools without maintaining your investment in them?

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


 

The Curious Case of Williamson County

Williamson Strong has more on the evolving situation in Williamson County where a County Commission reluctant to raise revenue is forcing the School Board to make budget cuts.

Using information on spending relative to peer districts, Williamson Strong notes there’s no spending problem in Williamson County, and in fact, Williamson spends significantly less than other top districts and even has lower per pupil expenditures than the state average:

Of the top 10 districts in terms of academic performance (measured by ACT/TCAP), WCS has the lowest per pupil expenditure. WCS spends only $8,945 per student – $1,790 less than the average PPE of the top 10 districts.

For reference, Franklin Special School District, the K-8 district that sits in the heart of Williamson County, spends $13,386 per student – almost 50% more per child than WCS. WCS also spends below the state average – $554 per student less than Tennessee’s average $9,499. Keep in mind that Tennessee is typically in the bottom ten states for per pupil expenditures. (See former School Board member Eric Welch’s graphs for comparison to state and national figures as well as to area private school tuitions.)

Additionally, WCS’ average teacher pay of $49,934 is $3,729 below the average of the top 10 districts in the state. Williamson’s spending on salaries is not out of control, and in fact, is less than peer districts. Again, for comparison, FSSD’s average teacher salary is $55,305.

So, the School Board passed budget cuts of $6 million this week. The alternative would have been for the County Commission to raise property taxes by six cents. That would cost a taxpayer with a $400,000 home $60 a year. Or, one Starbucks drink a month.

While this may not be a huge setback this year, it’s unsustainable in a district growing as rapidly as Williamson County. At some point, the level of service provided to students will noticeably suffer. Until then, have another Caramel Macchiato.

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


 

Too Rich to Pay

I reported earlier on the struggles Williamson County is facing in properly funding schools. As budget crunch time approaches, it seems the County Commission there is unlikely to approve a small property tax increase in  order to fund the school system’s budget request.

The Williamson Herald reports:

The Williamson County Board of Education participated in a tough discussion Thursday, regarding the necessity of cutting key new staff positions and services in order to fulfill the Williamson County Commission Budget Committee’s request to cut the school budget by $5 million.

The CCBC voted 4-1 earlier this spring to cut the school district’s budget in order to avoid a county property tax increase.

However, WCS Director of Schools Mike Looney said that in order to avoid a tax increase, an additional $1 million reduction is needed, totaling a $6 million decrease in the school board’s proposed operational budget, resulting in a reduction from $343 million to $337 million.

The story notes that the school system will cut nearly $2 million worth of new positions and services and make cuts to employee insurance to cover the rest of the shortfall.

Here’s what’s interesting: A property tax increase of 6 cents would basically cover the projected shortfall. Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in Middle Tennessee. It’s 35 cents lower than the second-lowest, which is Sumner County. A 6 cent increase would mean Williamson’s tax rate would still be the lowest, and still be 29 cents lower than Sumner. It would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at $400,000 roughly $60 a year.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in Tennessee. The school system there has always been a source of pride. Now, County Commissioners are quibbling over a few million dollars in order to avoid a tiny tax increase. The message: We can do great things for kids as long as we don’t have to pay more. Keeping taxes 35 cents lower than the next lowest county is more important than fully funding a budget request designed to improve services to a rapidly growing district.

Williamson County can afford to fully fund this proposed budget for schools. They can do it and still have the lowest tax rate in Middle Tennessee by nearly 30 cents. So far, it looks as if they aren’t willing to make that commitment.

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


 

Williamson Budget Woes

Apparently, Tennessee’s wealthiest county is having trouble figuring out how to properly fund schools. Here’s a story from the Tennessean on a proposed cut to the school system’s budget:

The county commission’s budget committee proposed a 1.46 percent cut Thursday to the operational budget.

The $5 million cut will impact dozens of employee positions as salaries comprise the majority of the district’s budget, said Leslie Holman, chief financial officer for Williamson County Schools.

Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney called the proposed cut tragic.

“It’s not like this budget hasn’t been vetted multiple times,” Looney said.

Principals submit requests to central office. Central office vets those requests, then the school board reviews the whole budget. Cuts are made at every level, Looney said.

“As a community, we have to decide what our priority is,” Looney said. “We can’t fund our school system with pennies.”

Parent advocacy group Williamson Strong notes there are several ways to generate revenue and also points out that Williamson County has the lowest property tax in middle Tennessee and the lowest among counties with a population greater than 100,000.

Here’s more from Williamson Strong on revenue options:

The Education Impact Fee

  • This is a fee on new construction. It is expected to raise a little less than $15 million annually when fully implemented next year.
  • This revenue will be allocated to the county’s debt service for WCS capital projects.
  • This fee was voted on by the County Commission. It can be changed by the County Commission.
  • This fee does not address turnover of existing homes in established communities like Brentwood. 7,641 homes are projected to be built in the Page zone while only 108 are projected in Brentwood.

Sales Tax

  • The state sales tax is 7%. The county sales tax rate is currently 2.25% (for a total Williamson County rate of 9.25%).
  • If the local rate were increased to 2.75% (maximum allowed), WCS could gain $11 million more in funding annually. Increasing the tax to 2.5% would yield approximately $8 million per year.
  • Increasing the county sales tax rate requires a two-thirds vote from the County Commission AND citizen approval from a county-wide voting referendum.
  • District 6 Commissioner Paul Webb plans to introduce a resolution for a referendum to be held asking voters to support a half-cent sales tax from 9.25% to the maximum 9.75%.
  • A local sales tax increase was considered in 2011 but withdrawn. We don’t know that a sales tax referendum has everbeen successfully passed in Williamson County. It requires voters to show up for a special election at an odd time of year, which drives down turnout, and it requires people to show up to specifically vote to raise their taxes. It also provides a more attractive focal point for anti-tax folks to organize around. Some may propose this option because they want it to pass and others because they think it will fail. Be thoughtful about motivations on this potential funding mechanism. Most experienced Williamson County political observers think it is unlikely to pass because turnout for a special election tends to be more anti-tax than the electorate as a whole.

Wheel Tax

  • The current wheel tax is $25.75. Increasing the wheel tax to $100 would mean approximately $18 million in revenue. In fiscal year 2015-16, the county sold approximately 180,000 stickers.
  • Like sales tax, an increase in the wheel tax would require a two-thirds vote from the County Commission and then citizen approval from a county-wide voting referendum.
  • Again, many longtime political observers believe a wheel tax has little likelihood of passage for the same reason as a sales tax. An increase in the wheel tax failed in 2000.

Property Tax

  • The current property tax rate is $2.15 (per $100 of a property’s assessed value). This rate represents the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee and the lowest among Tennessee counties with populations greater than 100,000.

TaxRateMap

Property Appraisal = $400,000

Assessed Value (25%) = $100,000

Property Tax Rate = $2.15 per $100 of a property’s assessed value

Property Tax = $100,000/100 x $2.15 = $2,150

  • Each additional cent equates to roughly a million dollars so in order to increase revenue by $8 million, we’d need a rate of $2.23. On the sample $400K home, the annual tax bill increase would be $80.
  • Increasing the property tax would require a simple majority – 13 out of 24 County Commissioners.
  • County Commissioners, particularly the thirteen who voted for the property tax change last year, may be reluctant to vote for an increase especially with every seat up for election in May 2018 if they believe their constituents are against it.

District 2 Betsy Hester and Judy Herbert, District 3 Matt Milligan and David Pair, District 5 Tommy Little, District 6 Paul Webb, District 7 Bert Chalfant, District 8 Jack Walton, District 10 Matt Williams and David Landrum, and District 12 Dana Ausbrooks and Steve Smith voted yes. Another yes vote was Tom Bain (D7) who retired this year. Dwight Jones (D1), Lew Green (D5), and Brian Beathard (D11) were absent.

Most of the same commissioners who voted against the county budget also rejected the property tax change – District 4 Kathy Danner (voted for overall budget) and Gregg Lawrence, District 6 Jeff Ford, District 8 Barb Sturgeon, District 9 Todd Kaestner and Sherri Clark, District 11 Brandon Ryan, and District 1 Ricky Jones (abstained from voting on overall budget).

 

How about more money from the state?

Getting more money from the state would be excellent. Currently, the state only funds a portion its school funding formula, known as the BEP (Basic Education Program). A word of caution: state funding would still not solve our local school funding issues. If a local elected official tells you the money should come from the state, ask them to fill you in on their conversations with the legislative delegation. If they’re actually advocating for the state to fully fund the BEP, for example, that’s great. Otherwise, they’re just talking. The chance of getting more than our calculated share from the state is slim because Williamson County has the ability to generate more revenue than most counties in the state.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in Tennessee. They have tremendous fiscal capacity (ability to generate revenue), and they have a very low tax rate. They could meet current and future needs with a relatively small increase in the property tax that would still leave them with the lowest rate in middle Tennessee. Instead, they are “struggling” to figure out how to pay for schools.

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