Hey, We’re Serious!

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent another letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month, urging caution as President Trump’s budget moves forward.

McQueen had written previously to alert DeVos to the negative impacts of the budget on Tennessee.

The latest letter warned of deep impacts in rural communities. The Tennessean reports:

In her letter, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the elimination of Title II, part A funds in the upcoming federal budget would severely hinder the state’s ability to train teachers. McQueen estimated in the letter that the cuts would hit public school students across the state as well as more than 42,000 students in private schools.

Cuts in the overall federal budget could mean Tennessee could see larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs, according to superintendents and child advocacy groups.

I’ve noted previously that districts like Dickson County and Williamson County have County Commissions reluctant to fund school budgets.  Many of the state’s rural counties simply don’t have the funds to spend significantly on schools.

It will be interesting to see if County Commissions in the districts most impacted by the DeVos cuts are willing to spend the money to make up for  lost federal funds. Additionally, I’m curious as to whether County Commissions and School Boards are actively lobbying DeVos and their Members of Congress over the proposed Trump education budget.

As McQueen notes, should this budget pass, it will mean stark choices for many districts — and even impact a number of our state’s private schools.

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


 

 

How Much for Schools?

Tennessee continues to experience revenue growth beyond budgeted estimates. The latest numbers indicate the state took in $112 million more than was budgeted for June. That brings the amount collected over budgeted estimates to $789 million with one more month left to calculate for the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, in spite of recent increases in allocation to teacher compensation, school systems still aren’t seeing adequate BEP funding. Every district in the state hires more teachers than allocated by the BEP formula. The state doesn’t provide any funding for the mandate of providing Response to Intervention. The state’s BEP Review Committee indicates providing funding for RTI positions would cost about $28 million. That’s about 25% of this month’s surplus. YES, for the cost of 1/4 of one month’s surplus revenue, we can begin providing funding for RTI positions. Districts should be demanding this money. The state can afford it.

As for teacher compensation, the state pays 70% of the BEP calculated rate — which is now $46,225. The good news: That calculated rate has been increasing in recent years. The bad news: That rate is still $7000 LESS than the average teacher compensation paid by districts in the state.

What does this mean? It means districts have to make up a big difference in order to maintain their level of pay. As one example, Nashville is struggling to pay teachers on par with similar cities nationally. Based on current BEP formula allocations, funding teaching positions at the actual average rate would mean MNPS would receive an additional $21 million for teacher compensation. Those funds would certainly help close the pay gap that plagues the system.

It’s worth noting that Tennessee has one of the largest gaps between teacher salaries and salaries of similarly-educated professions. Add to that the low reimbursement rate for teaching positions, and it’s not difficult to see why our teacher pay lags behind other cities and states.

To recap: Tennessee pays 70% of a pay rate that is $7000 below the actual cost of hiring a teacher. Fixing that by funding teaching positions at the actual cost would mean spending $343 million more per year. Or, about three months worth of surpluses. For another $28 million, we could also fund RTI positions.

Tennessee is on sound financial footing. We have month after month of budget surpluses. We also have a clearly identified policy need that would consume less than 40% of those surplus dollars. That leaves plenty of money for savings, other investments, or new projects.

I write this story year after year after year.

Policymakers can choose to address the serious funding challenges facing our schools. They can do it without raising taxes. They can do it while still saving more than $600 million.

This should be easy.

If providing excellent public schools is a top priority, the state will move to fund teaching positions at a rate that matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher.

Every candidate for governor should be asked if they support making this investment. Their answer will say a lot about the priority they place on public education.

For more on education politics and policy, 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


 

McQueen vs. DeVos

President Trump’s education budget is bad news for Tennessee’s schools. So much so that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, penned a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking that the proposed cuts be reconsidered.

Jason Gonzalez of the Tennessean reports:

Tennessee officials say heavy cuts to children’s programs in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could hinder the long-term progress the state has made helping poor and disadvantaged kids.

The $4.1 trillion White House budget proposal calls for cuts to school and health care funding that helps the state’s neediest children.

The cuts could mean larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs.

McQueen warned:

“Tennessee’s rural areas and poorer districts are especially dependent upon these funds, as their local budgets are unable to provide additional support for professional learning,” McQueen wrote.

According to the State Report Card, federal funding accounts for 11.72% of all education funding in the state. While all of those funds wouldn’t be eliminated in the Trump-DeVos budget, the proposal does make significant cuts. Rural communities are often more dependent on federal funds and so would be hit hardest, as McQueen notes.

While Tennessee has made some progress in recent years on school funding, the state is still behind where it should be in terms of full funding of the BEP — the funding formula for schools. Losing a significant amount of federal dollars would deal a blow to a state finally inching forward in terms of education progress.

The McQueen letter may be the first public evidence that the Haslam administration is at odds with the leadership from Washington. It’s encouraging to see McQueen take this stand and publicly fight for the needs of Tennessee’s poorest districts.

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


 

Did You Read the Whole Letter?

The BEP Review Committee met today as it begins the process of outlining priorities for BEP improvement for 2018. The group received an update on how Governor Haslam and the General Assembly responded to the priority list it created for this year.

Here’s the list of priorities the committee identified for 2017:

The five priorities, in order:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Committee members noted that Governor Haslam funded an increase in teacher compensation and improvements in ELL funding. As of today, that budget has passed the House of Representatives and awaits final approval by the Senate on Monday.

The committee also noted that no movement was made to improve the ratio of school counselors to students and no funding was provided for RTI positions. Technology funding also remained constant.

There was an opportunity to address the RTI issue. Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville sponsored a bill that would have added to the BEP formula funding for 3 RTI positions for each public school in the state. That bill carried a cost of $167 million. Despite a nearly $1 billion surplus this year, funding was not provided for this legislation.

Committee members — representatives of school boards and superintendents — noted that the RTI program can be successful if properly implemented. Directors of Schools in particular expressed frustration at the state of RTI, noting the program is mandated, but not funded.

The legislature referred Pitts’ bill to the BEP Review Committee for study and further recommendations.

In addition to the lack of funding for RTI positions and school counselors, MNPS Chief Financial Officer Chris Henson noted that historically, the committee has recommended an improvement in funding for school nurses. While that wasn’t in the top 5 this past year, Henson advocated for getting it back on the list. Committee staff indicated members would be surveyed over the summer, with an eye toward a new list of priorities released by August.

One other issue worth noting: Committee staff highlighted increases in BEP funds for teacher compensation over the past three years and suggested this indicates a commitment to the committee’s top priority. However, the BEP Review Committee’s own 2016 report , actual total compensation for teachers has increased by only 1% per year over the last two years.That’s less than the rate of increase from a decade ago, when total teacher compensation was increasing at a rate of about 3% per year. This in spite of repeated commitments to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher pay.

So, the BEP Review Committee will make a new priority list. Issues like funding RTI positions and school counselors seem likely to make a repeat appearance. The question, then, is will these items receive the attention they deserve?

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