It’s school budget time in Tennessee. By now, many school systems have passed budgets and some County Commissions have signed off on them. In some cases, there’s still work to do — ironing out differences in what a School Board requests and what a County Commission says it will fund.
We saw this play out in Williamson County, where County Commissioners who value low taxes and lattes won out over a School Board and Director who want to maintain a high level of service for students and the community. We saw a brief back and forth in Metro Nashville as the Board’s proposed three percent raise for teachers was lowered to two and then moved back to three. Even with MNPS moving teacher pay up a small notch this year, the district still lags behind similar cities like Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati.
Now, let’s look at Dickson County, where budget wrangling is ongoing.
I reported previously on plans by the Dickson County School Board to significantly raise pay. The proposal to give a ten percent raise was quickly shot down by the County Commission despite Dickson County being at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to teacher pay in surrounding districts.
Then, I noted that Dickson was among the “fortunate 46” districts mandated to raise their teacher pay by way of Tennessee Board of Education action. Those districts all had pay rates so low that to meet the new state minimum salary schedule (which itself is rather sad), they are required to implement pay raises this year. Dickson County teachers are slated to receive about $1750 per year more as a result of this requirement. Director of Schools Danny Weeks and the School Board wanted to push that amount to around $2500 per teacher.
Here’s what the County Mayor and County Commission have to say:
Last month, when the first two budget proposals were rejected, Rial said without a $2.6 million cut to the schools budget, a 26-cent property tax hike would be needed. The mayor has said previously that school system expenses increased by 8 percent over last year, but revenues increased by about 3 percent.
Weeks disputes that claim and notes the School Board’s budget proposal can be funded without using a tax increase and instead, relying on the system’s record of sound fiscal management which has led to a significant fund balance.
“Truthfully, we have enough fund balance to operate on the budget we have proposed without a property tax increase at all,” said Weeks last week to the board.
Using the previous year as a guide, Weeks said the school system is “budgeting much less than what we actually received the previous year.” Weeks told the board that if the school system “was allowed to budget our true, actual numbers with revenues,” it would likely need to cut about $750,000 to meet the county’s criteria — not $2.6 million.
While County Mayor Rial agreed that a tax increase wasn’t needed this year, he indicated an unwillingness to invest the money in schools.
After Weeks told commissioners a tax increase is not necessary — adding he would be “proud” to pay an extra $10 per month to support education — Rial said he agreed that a tax increase is not technically needed this year. And, the mayor noted that the school system has one of the largest fund balances in the state.
Here you have a school system under sound financial management with one of the largest fund balances in the state that has also received a 13% increase in funds for teacher compensation from the state over the past three budget cycles and yet county leaders won’t approve a budget that provides a modest but significant raise for teachers.
Two points worth noting: First, Dickson County should demonstrate the value it places on schools by investing as Director Weeks has recommended. Apparently, they can make this investment without a tax increase this year. Not doing so simply sends the message that schools aren’t that important.
Second, Dickson County leaders should be pressuring their state legislative delegation to demand proper funding of the BEP teacher salary component. Our state has a significant budget surplus and can well afford to invest the $350 million statewide it would take to improve the allocation districts receive for teachers. Adjusting the BEP formula to more accurately reflect actual teacher pay would result in an additional $2.8 million for Dickson County. That would allow for increasing teacher pay and other spending while also using less of the fund balance moving forward.
For now, it looks like the School Board will be looking at making cuts despite a rather ambitious start to their budgeting season. Funding schools is both a local and state responsibility. Dickson County leaders should do their part and then step up and demand the state fulfill its obligations.
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