Lawsuits Stacking Up as Lee’s COVID (Non)Response Makes Matters Worse

Lawsuits from parents in Williamson and Knox counties are challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing opting out of a school district’s mask policy. The suits are similar to a suit from Shelby County parents. In the Shelby County suit, a judge today granted an injunction preventing Lee’s opt-out plan from going forward.

Meghan Mangrum has more on the Williamson County suit in the Tennessean:

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Nashville, names the governor, the Williamson County Board of Education and Franklin Special School District as defendants, alleging that the governor’s order “has failed to allow school districts to afford the reasonable accommodation of implementing a universal masking policy that does not contain a voluntary opt-out.”

In addition, the complaint alleges that the defendants’ actions “have pitted children against children, while placing the health and safety of medically vulnerable children with disabilities in danger” — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Shelby County suit also cites the ADA. The injunction granted today only applies to students in Shelby County.

Meanwhile, parents in Knox County have also filed suit along similar grounds.

WBIR has more:

The mothers of four disabled or medically compromised Knox County students and two Knox County teachers say it’s imperative that the county impose a mask mandate for children and that the governor’s order allowing parents to opt out of such a measure be halted.

The mothers are suing Gov. Bill Lee and the Knox County Board of Education in U.S. District Court. The case is being heard in Greeneville by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer.

woman holding sign
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COVID Closures

COVID-19 is once again closing schools in Tennessee. This time, districts are not able to shift entirely to remote learning – though Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn offered some limited guidance regarding shifting to remote learning on a school-by-school basis.

Fox 17 in Nashville has the story of Wilson County Schools closing all of next week and re-opening after Labor Day:

The Wilson County School District announced on Friday schools will be closed all of next week due to “the continued surge in recent positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines,” the district stated on Twitter.

The county plans to return on September 7. While closed, buildings and buses will be cleaned. The county noted there will not be remote learning and “therefore there will be no teaching and learning expectations during this time.”

The move comes just after Williamson County Schools asked the state to allow remote learning and also instituted a mask mandate across all district schools. Previously, the mandate only applied in elementary schools.

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Williamson Parents Speak Out for Diversity, Inclusion

A group known as One WillCo helped organize a parent response to a plan by Williamson County Schools to focus attention on diversity in the district and address issues of systemic racism.

Here’s more from a press release:

Before tonight’s school board meeting, over 100 community members joined outside the Williamson County Admin Complex to show support of the district’s hiring of “Fostering Healthy Solutions” and their efforts to support diversity and inclusion in the district. Fifteen community members spoke in gratitude during the period of public comment.  

Revida Rahman, mom to two children in Williamson County Schools reminded everyone that “Brown v. Board of Education was decided 67 years ago today. If your child hasn’t experienced racism at school, that’s good for you, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to other kids. Our students have the right to a safe environment. If you aren’t empathetic to children being harmed by racism, please stop trying to prevent action. We have to do something and the time to act is now.” 

Lee Cooke also spoke in support of diversity work. He has 3 children in WCS and recognized that people of color are grossly underrepresented in Williamson County, even on the Board and on the faculty and staff. He continued, “And I find it concerning and disappointing that there is no formal training for faculty around unconscious bias. I go through it twice a year with my corporate job, so I’m not sure why teachers don’t get the same training. We need a better system of reporting & tracking so students feel safe reporting incidents.”

Dustin Koctar lives in District 12 and has 3 kids in elementary school. “I want to thank you for hiring FHS (Fostering Healthy Solutions) for much-needed assistance and guidance to make schools safer and more welcoming for everyone. You put your reputations at risk and opened yourselves up to harassment and hate. I’m asking you to stay the course and continue the support.” He also addressed fellow white people in the crowd, “we can move past the discomfort you may feel about this. If left unattended, white guilt can become the best friend of white supremacy. Children should be able to see people who look like them. We support the children who feel powerless.”

Emily Miller, a mother with one child in WCS and one attending soon, and an admin of the “Together Nolensville” Facebook Group also spoke, “Thank you to the Board for hard work in all areas of education and for hiring FHS, a qualified third party to help us make difficult decisions. As a white mom of white kids, this still matters to me, as it should to everyone. We want schools to be a safe and comfortable place for incident reporting and accountability. Thank you, and keep up the good work you’re doing.”

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White the Power

Apparently, the all-white, mostly Republican Williamson County School Board is really a front for leftist political indoctrination. At least, that’s the impression you’d get if you read a recent email sent by the Williamson County Republican Party in order to recruit candidates to run for School Board in 2020.

It seems some in the local Republican Party leadership are a little too comfortable in their white privilege. Or, they just don’t like reality. Or, the Williamson County School Board really is run by a bunch of raging leftists disguised as upper middle class white folks living in the state’s wealthiest (and most Republican) county.

If you believe this email, you might also believe Jay Sekulow’s lies about the Muslim takeover of Social Studies in Tennessee. You might also think that Eric Welch is best friends with AOC. Or that Rick Wimberly hangs out with “the Squad.”

Calm down, Williamson County.

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Tempered Enthusiasm

Following last week’s release of TNReady results, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney offered words of caution in interpreting the results.

The Williamson Herald has the story:

Looney said he was proud of how well WCS students, parents, teachers and staff responded to the testing in light of its documented flaws, and he was pleased with the fact that the district remained in the top five in every test and grade level.

“However,” he said in a statement released by WCS, “it would be disingenuous to fully celebrate without acknowledging the problems experienced by students, parents and teachers during last year’s testing process.”

While clearly frustrated with continued TNReady problems, Looney offered hope for a reliable assessment in the future:

“While I am so sorry that our students and teachers had to endure last year’s State testing experience, moving forward, we are optimistic that our students will be able to show what they know with a reliable and functional assessment. As a district, we will continue to be laser focused on success for all students.”

MORE on TNReady:

It’s all been a pack of lies

Beyond TNReady

Definitely something wrong

One glaring exception

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The Williamson County Game

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

Here’s some of what she has to say:

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

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

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

All three were sponsored by Board Member Amber Rountree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


 

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


 

 

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.

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