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


 

The NeverEnding Story

Another day, more stories of districts reporting to families that TNReady scores won’t be back in time to be factored into student grades. I first reported that Williamson County sent word that scores would not be back according to the original timeline. Next, it was MNPS telling parents that TNReady scores won’t be back until June, meaning they won’t be factored into report cards.

Now, two more middle Tennessee districts have sent notices about TNReady results not being ready in time.

Here’s the notice from Clarksville-Montgomery County:

The TNReady materials from CMCSS have been returned to Questar. Tennessee has noted that they will be unable to provide the district with the test results until after the end of May. Based on CMCSS Administrative Policy INS-A023, effective April 17, 2015 in alignment with HB 36 SB 285 Amendment (005744), Clarksville Montgomery County School System will not include students’ state assessment scores in their final spring semester grades if the state assessment scores are not received by the district at least five instructional days before the end of the academic year. As we will not be receiving the scores until the end of May the scores will not be included in students’ grades for this year. The second semester average for elementary and middle will be 50% 3rd 9 weeks and 50% 4th 9 weeks. The second semester grades for high school will be 40% 3rd 9 weeks, 40% 4th 9 weeks, and 20% final exam.

And one from Wilson County Schools:

Good Afternoon!

The end of a school year always brings about a flurry of activity and excitement, but I wanted to take a moment to update you on report cards for the spring semester.

A couple of weeks ago, we announced that report cards would be available, VIA Skyward, on Tuesday May 30th. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the district will be able to meet that date, due to a shipping delay that was beyond our control. While our district met all of the required deadlines to ensure that our raw scores would be returned by May 22nd, the state vendor responsible for picking up the completed materials arrived several days later than scheduled. This has affected a number of large districts across the state, including Wilson County.

The TN Department of Education is aware of these delays. They’ve assured us that they’re working with the vendor to “find a remedy” for the school districts impacted. Our hope is that a solution WILL be found, and our raw scores will be returned on time. Having said that, we thought it was important to make you aware of what’s happened, in the event that report cards have to be delayed for a week.

You may remember, TNReady scores came back later than expected for the fall semester, causing report cards to be delayed. While school districts have the authority to exclude TNReady scores that are returned more than 5 days late, it is the position of Wilson County Schools that the scores be included for this semester, as they were in the fall. This is not a decision that was taken lightly. Many conversations have taken place with teachers and principals about this issue, and the overwhelming consensus is that we include the scores on report cards. Students have worked incredibly hard all year to show of their skills, and we’re eager to see just how well they did!

Thank you for remaining patient, as we work through the process. We’ll keep you updated, as we receive additional information from the state. If you have any questions, feel free to submit those to “Let’s Talk” at the following link: http://www.k12insight.com/Lets-Talk/embed.aspx?k=WK9F4DLT. You can also reach out to me directly, using the information below.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Johnson

Here’s what the Department of Education has to say about the importance of state assessments:

Our state tests serve multiple objectives:

  • They provide feedback about students’ academic progress and how it aligns with grade-level expectations, providing parents and teachers a big-picture perspective about how a student is progressing compared to peers across the district and state, including a student’s strengths and growth opportunities.
  • This builds confidence and transparency about students’ readiness for college and the workforce among Tennessee universities and employers and holds us accountable to serving all students fairly.
  • Assessments help educators strengthen instruction and reflect on their practice, and allow us to highlight schools where students are excelling, so we can learn from those who are doing well.
  • State assessments also help inform decisions at the state level and help state and district leaders determine how to allocate resources, better invest in schools, and identify where we may need to offer additional support.

All of this sounds pretty important. But, not important enough to get it right. Last year, TNReady was a complete disaster. For the past four years, there have been problems with scores being either not available or not clearly communicated.

This year, the state is not providing quick scores to districts — those are the scores used to factor into a student’s final grade. Instead, the districts were to receive the raw data and choose a method of tabulating quick scores. An analysis of the various methods indicates a significant difference in scores depending on the calculation used:

The cube root method yielded on average a quick score, the score that goes for a grade, of 4.46 points higher. In other words, a student scoring basic with a raw score of 30 or higher would, on average, receive an extra 4.46% on their final quick score grade, which goes on their report card. A student who scored a 70 last year could expect to receive a 74 under the new quick score calculation.

The additional points do drop as one goes up the raw score scale, however. For the average basic student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 30 and 47, they would receive an extra 5.41 extra points under the new method.

The average proficient student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 48 and 60 would get 4.32 extra points under the new method.

The average advanced student grades 3-8 with a raw score of between 61 and 67 would receive an extra 1.97 extra points under the new method.

The difference varies much more widely for below basic students, but the difference can be as much as 25 points in some cases.

So, for those districts using quick scores in report cards, there could be a wide variance across districts depending on the method chosen. It seems to me, districts should have already communicated to families how they will calculate quick scores with some justification for that choice. Alternatively, the state could have (should have?) mandated a method so that there is score consistency across the state.

Of course, since a number of districts now won’t have data back in a timely fashion, there may not be many districts using quick scores at all this year.

Here’s the key point: Last year’s TNReady was a debacle. That means this year is really the first year we’ve done TNReady. Instead of jerking districts (and their students) around, the state should have waived use of TNReady scores to evaluate teachers and grade students this year. Doing so would have provided insight into the time it takes to get scores back to districts and allowed for possible changes in administration for next year. Instead, the plan was rushed with a new vendor. Now, we’re where we’ve been year after year: The school year is ending, and there’s a problem with test data.

One more thing: Despite this being the first year of a successful administration of a new test and despite the gap in test results — TCAP in 2015, no results in 2016, TNReady in 2017 — the scores from TNReady will still factor into teacher evaluation.

A word of caution to districts during the 2017-18 testing cycle: The state’s track record with deadlines and score results is not so great. Maybe when they promise you scores will be ready according to a certain timeline, you should be making plans for that timeline not being met.

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


 

Maybe Someday

I reported recently on Williamson County Schools posting information that indicated a delay in the return of TNReady scores for this year. That report indicated scores would not be returned on the agreed timeline and a delay in report cards would result.

Now, word comes from MNPS that scores will not be returned to them until June. This means TNReady and EOC scores will not be factored into student grades.

Here’s the text of an email sent home to parents at JT Moore Middle School in Nashville:

Dear JT Moore Families:
TCAP grades and EOC scores will not be back in time to be included on report cards.
TCAP quick scores arriving in June
The Tennessee Department of Education has confirmed that we will not receive quick scores from state assessments before the end of the school year. Thus they will not be factored into student grades.
Infinite Campus is set up to properly adjust the weighting of nine weeks grades in the event that no exam grade is entered. Each nine-week grade will count as 25 percent of the yearly average for grades 3-8 or 50 percent of the semester average for high school courses.
As a result of this the following will apply:
No grade will go in the TCAP column in ES (3-4) and MS (5-8)
For the following HS or HS for Credit that take an EOC course there will be NO EXAM grade at all.

The grade for these semester classes will calculate 50/50:
English I, II, and III
Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry
Integrated Math IB and Integrated Math IIB
US History
Biology

Once again, the state’s testing regime is creating chaos. In some districts, the scores may end up counting in student grades — resulting in delayed report cards. Other districts (like MNPS) will simply not factor the test scores into student grades.

Imagine studying for an exam, being prepared, and doing well — knowing your performance is a significant factor in your final grade. Then, being told that the people who mandate the test simply won’t get it back in time. That’s the level of consideration being shown to our students.

This marks the second year of problems with TNReady and the fourth consecutive year of testing trouble wreaking havoc on students and teachers.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of what these tests really tell us:

An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.

Of course, while the scores may or may not count in student grades (depending on district), they WILL be factored into teacher evaluations this year. This despite the fact they won’t provide any valid information.

TNReady will be ready. Maybe. Someday.

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


 

Curlee to Resign

The Tennessean reports that controversial Williamson County School Board member Susan Curlee will resign:

“While it has been an honor to serve our community, I will be resigning from the Williamson County School Board effective August 1 for family & personal reasons,” Curlee, using her personal account, wrote in a post to The Westhaven/West Franklin Conservative Alliance Facebook group.

More on Williamson County Schools:

Just South of Nashville

What’s Going on in Williamson County?

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


 

 

Decision Time

I reported last week on the potential fight brewing between Williamson County Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education over End of Course testing this year.

Now, Melanie Balakit at the Tennessean reports that the time for a decision is fast approaching.

From the story:

“There is only one district where administration of high school and end-of-course exams have been suspended,” Chandler Hopper, state department of education spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We are continuing to have discussions with this district and are hopeful that the commissioner’s authority to issue penalties will not be necessary.”

It is not clear what, if any, penalties would be issued from the Commissioner. The Department of Education did threaten to withhold BEP funds from districts who refused to administer Phase II of TNReady prior to the events that led to the cancellation of that portion of the test.

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

One Step Further

On the heels of the announcement from the Tennessee Department of Education that TNReady testing was being suspended for grades 3-8, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney went one step further and suspended end of course testing for high school students in his district.

Here’s the email he sent yesterday:

You are an incredible group of professionals and I am exceedingly proud of your work. This year has been full of surprises and uncertainty as it relates to state assessment and yet you still have prepared students for success. Your work is important and matters. I am proud of you.

Unfortunately, sometimes events happen outside of our direct control. Today the Commissioner of Education announced the suspension of Part II of the TnReady/TCAP Assessment in grades 3-8.

In addition, because of my continued concerns, I am suspending End of Course tests at the high school level.

I truly believe in the importance of measuring student progress. It is, from my perspective, a critical piece of our work. And I look forward to us being able to appropriately assess students as soon as possible.

Mike Looney

 

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

The Road to Looney

This morning, the MNPS School Board voted 8-1 to make Williamson County Director of Schools Dr. Mike Looney the preferred finalist for the vacancy left by Dr. Register’s retirement on June 30th.

The process will move forward with a comprehensive background check on Looney and a visit by the board to his district (a short trip). If all goes well, a final offer could be made as early as next Thursday.

The meeting moved along pretty quickly this morning, with member after member noting how impressed they’d been with Looney’s interviews.

But, the road to making Looney the finalist wasn’t quite so smooth.

Just a few weeks ago, the district’s Chief Academic Officer, Jay Steele, was named the Interim Director of Schools.  Then, he wasn’t, and Chris Henson was placed in the role.

Then, the Board received a list of four finalists that included the controversial John Covington.

After Covington was eliminated from the pool following initial interviews, the Board proceeded with full-day interviews and community forums featuring the three remaining candidates.

By all accounts, the Board was impressed with how well-prepared Looney was and how specific he was about what needs to happen in MNPS.

So, this morning, Board members moved quickly to name Looney as the preferred finalist.

The process isn’t over, and Looney has issued a statement making reference to an allegation given voice by Board Member Tyese Hunter.  But, despite a bumpy process, it appears MNPS has a strong choice to be the district’s next leader.

Here’s Looney’s statement:

“I am honored to learn that Metro Nashville Public Schools has narrowed its search for the Director of Schools, and I am a finalist. Unfortunately, in the last hour of the meeting, a false allegation complicated matters by calling into question my integrity. I communicated to Board Chairwoman Gentry that my first priority is to set the record straight. I look forward to this being done in an expeditious manner. Meanwhile, I intend to converse with Williamson County School Board members about the implications of my selection as a finalist. I am especially thankful for all of the good work our families and employees are doing in Williamson County Schools. It is greatly valued. Out of respect to both School Boards and in order to facilitate getting closure on the false allegation, I will refrain from commenting further at this time.

-Dr. Mike Looney, WCS Superintendent

Read Board Member Will Pinkston’s thoughts on priorities for the next MNPS Director of Schools

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

The Looney Leap

Will MNPS hire its next Director of Schools from neighboring Williamson County?

Andrea Zelinski reports:

…after a day-long series of interviews, meet-and-greets and community forums, board members found themselves laughing at Looney’s jokes, digging his sense of urgency and engaged in the direction he wants to take the district. 

Last month Anna Shepherd was adamant that a candidate from the neighboring, largely white and wealthy district couldn’t understand MNPS’ complex and diverse student body. But after Tuesday’s marathon of meetings, Looney coming from tony Williamson County is “not as troubling” as she thought it would be, she told Pith.

The Board interviewed Barry Shephard today and is slated to make a decision on a favorite for the job by tomorrow.

It’s possible the Board could start the search over or reset it in some fashion, attempting to find additional candidates to consider.

Tune in tomorrow…

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