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


 

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


 

That’s NOT a PAC

Melanie Balakit of the Tennessean reports that an Administrative Law Judge has ruled that Williamson Strong was not a political action committee (PAC) in the 2014 election cycle:

Williamson Strong was not a political action committee in a past school board election, according to an order released Thursday from an administrative law judge.

The order, written by Michael Begley, dissolves a fine that Williamson Strong had for failure to register as a PAC during a 2014 school board election.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance issued a $5000 fine, later reduced to $2,500, to Williamson Strong in 2015.

Williamson Strong posted this response on their Facebook page:

A former school board member filed a campaign finance against Williamson Strong in December 2014. 28 months later, we have been vindicated!

We’re still digesting the 19-page order from the Administrative Law Judge, but you can read it along with us.

“After consideration of this entire record in this matter, it is determined that the Respondents did not constitute a political campaign committee with respect to the 2014 election. It is therefore ORDERED that the Registry’s charges against the respondents are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.”

The order from the ALJ indicates the Registry failed to meet the burden of establishing Williamson Strong constituted a PAC for three reasons: The “express advocacy” standard, the functional equivalency test, and the media exception.

To summarize, the judge found that Williamson Strong did not engage in any “express advocacy” — they didn’t encourage the public to vote for or against any specific candidate or candidates. The judge also found that Williamson Strong did not act as the “functional equivalent” of a PAC. Finally, the judge found that Williamson Strong’s activity may have fallen under the “media exception.” That is, Williamson Strong was providing information to the public via a website and Facebook page just as a media outlet may do during an election cycle.

This order becomes final unless the Registry appeals within 15 days.

The ruling in this case is clear: Williamson Strong is not a PAC and certainly was NOT a PAC in 2014, despite claims by Susan Curlee and others to the contrary.

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


 

What Makes a PAC a PAC?

The curious case of Williamson Strong (as told by Williamson Strong). A summary: The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance found that parent advocacy group Williamson Strong was a PAC and issued a fine. Williamson Strong is appealing that decision. Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Sumner Sentinel was determined NOT to be a PAC by the same Registry.

Here’s the story as Williamson Strong sees it:

Our appeal hearing with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance is set for November 3-4.

As you know, Susan Curlee and subsequently the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance (TREF) have been prosecuting a case against the five of us since late 2014. It has been an eye-opening experience: what appears to be (or have been) a very close relationship between Curlee and the Registry, false and harassing charges from Curlee, demonstrably fabricated statements and charges from the state, multiple attempts by Curlee to get the DA to charge us with various crimes, deleted public records, “accidentally deleted” public audio recordings, and deposition testimony regarding the proper preparation of turnips.

This case isn’t technical. This case isn’t normal.

We are involved parties and you will and should read this—and our subsequent and previous updates—with that in mind. We will cover multiple aspects of the story and provide links to source materials when possible. Despite the Registry’s and Ms. Curlee’s efforts to seal and hide many of the records, most of the documents in this case are public records: the depositions, the motions, the responses, the transcriptions of the hearings themselves.

Through the Registry, Curlee and her powerful political allies have been effective in using state tax dollars and the power of the state government to investigate us and harass us, to transmit to the public lies about us, and to damage our reputations (as Curlee gleefully acknowledged the day of the ruling in an email to Jean Barwick, the paid executive director of the Williamson County Republican Party).

(Note: When Ms. Barwick familiarly refers to “Patricia,” she is referring to Registry member Patricia Heim, former Davidson County Election member and active Davidson County Republican Party and Nashville Republican Women member.)

The Registry jumped in with both feet in support of Susan Curlee. Lest you think we’re exaggerating when we point out that the Registry’s behavior in this case is different than their behavior and judgment throughout their history, let’s take it from the Registry itself. Drew Rawlins, long-time Executive Director of the TREF, has testified that, to the best of his knowledge, with the exception of the Williamson Strong case, TREF has NEVER in its existence:

1) Fined a group for failing to register as a PAC without evidence of cash contributions.

2) Found that a group supported or opposed a candidate without an express endorsement or opposition to any particular candidate for public office.

3) Found that presenting factual information regarding candidates for public office constituted support for or opposition to a candidate within the meaning of the PAC definitions.

4) Determined that a group reporting on another entity’s endorsement of candidates constituted support for or opposition to a candidate by the group sharing that information.

5) Determined that the act of meeting with candidates for public office constitutes PAC activity.

6) Found that a nonpartisan [and non-candidates specific] “get out the vote” effort constituted a contribution or expenditure under the campaign finance laws.

7) Held that the act of purchasing a voter list constituted an expenditure or a contribution in support of or in opposition to a candidate.

That’s pretty much the whole case against Williamson Strong.

So why? Why did the Registry act the way it did? We could compare this to lots of other cases (and we might), but let’s just pick a contemporary one for now. Let’s look at a case that happened just this year, one that was fully resolved within a couple of months. The Registry has the same members, but they reached a dramatically different decision.

The Sumner Sentinel

The Sumner Sentinel is a political website, Facebook page, and printed “newsletter” in Sumner County. The newsletter version of the Sentinel was printed and mailed a total of three times in two years. The mailed, printed version was linked to the website and the Facebook page; you could read the “newsletter” through the website and so forth.

The Sumner Sentinel team describes itself as:
“a group of citizens focused on bringing transparency and accountability to local government through publications, advocacy opportunities and online forums”

Some of their content in their “Election Issue” arguably advocated for the election of some candidates and for the defeat of others. Their election intent was clear.

The Sumner Sentinel had nice things to say about the incumbent Sumner County Assessor of Property John Isbell and disparaging things to say about his opponent. That shouldn’t be shocking, given that Isbell was the founding administrator of the Sumner Sentinel Facebook page and the owner of the Sumner Sentinel website domain. John Isbell also actively campaigned on the Sumner Sentinel’s Facebook page.

The Registry, however, found that the Sumner Sentinel, which had web hosting fees as well as over $11,000 in printing costs, was “the media” and thus was not a PAC.

The Registry did not comb through the content of the Sumner Sentinel website, Facebook page, and printed material (as they did with us) to determine if their content met the standards of advocating for or against the election of a candidate. Nor did the Registry ask (or demand, as in our case) that the Sumner Sentinel team defend themselves against the claim that they were expressly advocating for or against the election of certain candidates. Nope. The Registry concluded that the Sumner Sentinel was a media publication and was therefore covered by the First Amendment. Very simple. The Registry made it clear that editorial content – at least in this case – cannot be considered a contribution. It is a First Amendment issue, in the Sumner Sentinel’s case, according to the Registry.

Registry counsel explained that, according to the law, the only way the media could be considered a PAC is if it were “owned” (partly or wholly) or controlled (partly or wholly) by a candidate. Note that John Isbell was a candidate for office and the Sumner Sentinel promoted him. Though John Isbell administered the group’s Facebook page, owned the website domain, and was described as “on the team” on the newsletter itself, he didn’t “own” the newsletter part. That was owned by Dr. David Black (Congressman Diane Black’s husband). Dr. Black explained (in an affidavit) that when Isbell was described as “on the team,” all he really did was set up the website.

So candidate John Isbell wrote for the Sentinel, owned the website, and administered the Facebook page, but had “nothing to do” with the content? He was labeled “part of the team” but really wasn’t?

Apparently, a group of people can spend eleven grand to print a political newsletter and expressly promote the candidate “on the team” of their publication, but they are not a PAC.

Maybe what really matters is who your friends (and enemies) are?

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


 

 

Strong Motion

Williamson Strong, a group of Williamson County parents focused on supporting excellent schools, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance for the fine the Registry levied against the group after finding it was operating as an unregistered political action committee (PAC).

In filing the suit, members of Williamson Strong said:

“The Registry’s primary conclusion, that any two people who spend even one penny to present political opinions can be deemed a political campaign committee, has very serious implications for everyone in the State of Tennessee. This decision is completely contrary to both the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution.”

The complaint further alleges that the Registry’s actions will have a chilling effect on parents in Tennessee who come together to express opinions about public schools. It notes that the Registry’s assertion that individuals with a union affiliation are subject to additional scrutiny places such individuals and others who affiliate with those individuals in a disadvantaged class.

That is: If you express political opinions in a group that includes union members, your political speech may be subject to penalties not applied to groups that do not include union members.

In fact, the Registry’s actions create just that impression: That parent groups will not be construed as true “volunteer groups” or “loose associations” if even one member happens to also be a union member.

As the complaint alleges, this special scrutiny violates the First Amendment’s protection of free association.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term and how the Registry handles future complaints regarding unregistered PACs while the lawsuit is in progress.

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

 

 

A Call for Testing Transparency

Advocacy groups from across the state have issued a call for testing transparency, even starting an online petition calling for the ability to review questions and answers after standardized tests are administered.

Here’s the latest email from TREE:

Tennessee’s public education system finds itself mired in TCAP controversy for the second year in a row. The Tennessee Department of Education’s (TDOE) release of seemingly inflated quick scores, without clarification on how they were calculated, left educators and parents befuddled and upset. After considerable questioning of the TDOE’s actions they released a statement attempting to clarify the situation, claiming a lack of communication on their part as the culprit, but didn’t actually address the gross deficits of a testing system that is completely lacking in transparency and accountability. The TDOE continues to move the goal posts of a high stakes testing system that remains off limits for public scrutiny. Tennesseans are tired of blindly accepting TCAP results from the TDOE. So, TREE has joined with more than a dozen grassroots organizations that support strong public schools across Tennessee to demand accountability from the TDOE in the wake of confusion created by the latest release of “quick scores” and associated raw “cut scores” from recent TCAP tests. [view press release]

We also want to draw attention to another concerning problem with standardized testing: Our children are losing immeasurable amounts of instruction time due to test preparation and administration. Please review the graphic attached to this post, based on the 2014-15 school year. (story continues below graphic)

The TN Department of Education’s state testing calendar and information from teachers were used as reference.

The TN Department of Education’s state testing calendar and information from teachers were used as reference to create this calendar. 2015-16 TDOE testing calendar>>

As you can see, our children are spending the large majority of their school year taking or preparing for tests. It is unfair to our children, teachers, and our society that data collection and high stakes testing has trumped instruction time. Public education was created to provide our society with a well-educated electorate and work force. It is the single most important factor in making our country the world leader it is today. But our nation’s leaders are fixated on excessive data collection with a focus solely on subjects covered on high stakes tests. This has led to the devaluation of a well-rounded education and in some instances the removal of arts, language and music education in our schools. Our reputation for being the most creative and innovative country in the world is in jeopardy as our nation now values honing test scores over fostering critical thinking and creativity. There are ways of evaluating the academic growth of a student that do not limit instruction and enable our teachers to hone their education delivery in turn fostering student achievement. Some examples include portfolio reviews, research projects, peer review committees, and standards-based evaluations, etc.


Sign the petition to demand transparency. E-mail Commissioner McQueen and Governor Haslam and tell them you want our tax dollars to go to teaching, not testing. Commissioner McQueen – Commissioner.McQueen@tn.gov Governor Haslam – bill.haslam@tn.gov Then contact your legislators and send them a copy of this testing calendar and post. Tell them why you are concerned about the excessive testing and demand transparency for the standardized tests that our state’s legislature and department of education require our students to take. Let them know you are holding them accountable and urge them to explore alternatives to boxing in our students and schools with high stakes testing. With their and your help, we can take back our schools and turn them into breeding grounds for a level of creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving that has never before been seen in human history.


Thank you to our growing number of grassroots organizations coming together to support strong public schools across Tennessee and demand accountability from the TDOE. Groups participating in this network include:

Strong Schools (Sumner County)

Williamson Strong (Williamson County)

SPEAK (Students, Parents, Educators Across Knox County)

SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment)

Momma Bears Blog

Gideon’s Army, Grassroots Army for Children (Nashville)

Advocates for Change in Education (Hamilton County)

Concerned Parents of Franklin County (Franklin County)

The Dyslexia Spot

Parents of Wilson County, TN, Schools

Friends of Oak Ridge Schools (City of Oak Ridge Schools)

TNBATs (State branch of National BATs)

East Nashville United

Tennessee Against Common Core (Statewide)

**For full disclosure, I’m a co-founder and the volunteer Executive Director of Strong Schools, a co-signer of the call for testing transparency.

More on TNReady, next year’s standardized test replacing TCAP

An Alternative to Standardized Testing

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

Just South of Nashville

 

TC Weber offers his take on what’s happening in Williamson County.

Essentially, he’s concerned that parent groups are coming under political fire when they enter the education policy debate. Here are some highlights:

The fine:

The Registry of Election Finance voted to fine Williamson Strong a total of 5K for failure to register as a PAC and failure to file campaign expenditures. That’s right – an organization that doesn’t have a treasurer nor a fundraising mechanism was fined for not declaring themselves a PAC. Either they are the worst PAC ever or there is something a little skewered here.

The Bottom Line:

This past week, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to people in Williamson County about these events. What emerges is a convoluted picture that seems to have as much to do with past politics as it does with the current issues. Much of it also seems to be tied to personalities as much as policies. That should not be a surprise to anyone who has been involved with politics. It would take King Solomon to weed through all that has transpired and assign accountability. That’s a task well above my pay grade and not really the point I’m looking to make.

What is important here is to recognize and possibly prevent the use of personal issues to circumvent the democratic process. Parents should absolutely have the right to band together and champion issues they deem important. They should have the right to educate the public without fear of retribution. I obviously don’t endorse slander, but politicians should understand that reaping the benefits of certain entities also means suffering the disadvantages. To argue that there are not outside forces seeking to influence our democratic society through their financial injection, on both sides of the aisle, is either naïve or willfully ignorant.

Parents should not have to go through a cryptic bureaucracy to get involved in policy making that directly affects their children, unless they are actively raising money and financially supporting candidates at a reasonable threshold.

TC’s entire post offers lots of detail about what happened, when it happened, and what it could mean for other grassroots groups. It’s worth a read.

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