In his first public comments on Shelby County Schools’ funding lawsuit against the state, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he believes the state is fulfilling its legal obligation to Tennessee’s largest school system.
However, he added that the issue of adequate school funding remains a concern.
The Shelby County Board of Education filed a suit last month claiming that Tennessee isn’t adequately funding its Memphis schools, especially for students who are minorities, have disabilities and live in extreme poverty. That’s different from a separate lawsuit filed last March by school boards in Hamilton County and six other southeast Tennessee districts, which says state education funding in general — not just for specific populations — is flawed.
“Shelby’s more specific to Shelby, given the higher poverty rates there,” Haslam said in answer to a reporter’s questions following an education event in Nashville about college and career readiness.
“Have we addressed that? We obviously feel like, in terms of purely legally, we are doing that,” Haslam said. “But having said that, separate out all the lawsuits, the question always is: Are we funding and resourcing K-12 in appropriate ways?”
After the Hamilton suit was filed, Haslam said he was “surprised” and “disappointed,” but still committed to ongoing talks with district leaders about education funding.
Haslam didn’t speak as emotionally Monday about the Shelby County suit.
He identified increasing teacher pay as his continued priority, and said that he is working to include more money for teachers in next year’s budget. This year’s budget included a 4 percent jump alloted for teacher pay. However, the amount of individual teachers’ raises varied district-by-district, and some teachers didn’t receive raises at all.
In 2014, Haslam reneged on a promise to raise teacher pay. He has said repeatedly that he wants Tennessee to be the fastest improving state when it comes to teacher compensation.
Hamilton County’s lawsuit specifically calls out the state for shirking its duty on teacher pay, claiming that the state’s funding formula underestimates the cost of teachers’ salaries by about $532 million.
A Davidson County judge is deliberating whether that case should be granted class-action status, meaning any of Tennessee’s 144 school districts could join the suit.