School Finance

Nashville Schools next to consider legal challenge over state funding

PHOTO: MNPS
Board members for Metro Nashville Public Schools

Addressing chronic state underfunding of Tennessee public education, the director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is urging more patience and cooperation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration amid a growing chorus of urban school leaders exploring whether to take their case to court.

While affirming that the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) is not being adequately funded, MNPS Director Jesse Register said Monday that litigation is the “wrong way” to effectively advocate for additional money.

“The threat of litigation should only be considered as the last resort, and I do not believe we are at that point in Tennessee,” Register wrote in a letter to the district’s school board, Metro Council, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, the governor’s administration, and school superintendents in Shelby, Knox and Hamilton counties.

Nashville’s board is scheduled Tuesday to discuss whether to join Tennessee’s three other urban districts that passed resolutions in February to pursue legal discussions. But Register cautioned that now is the time for cooperation, not litigation.

Jesse Register
Jesse Register

“The Governor has this year demonstrated good faith efforts toward increased funding for our students,” wrote Register, noting that the governor’s proposed budget would increase teacher pay and maintain current BEP funding levels. He also applauded Haslam’s help in bringing $60 million in federal funding to Davidson and Shelby counties for early childhood education.

Chris Caldwell, the Shelby County Schools board member who urged his district to pursue legal options, said neither Haslam nor any individual legislator can guarantee anything to local school districts, however.

“I would ask Mr. Register this question: What has the governor or legislature done in the last two years to make him think working with them can yield any results?” Caldwell told Chalkbeat. “We’re 45th in per-pupil spending in the country, and it’s beyond the time for empty promises. These kids don’t get these years back.”

Caldwell said Shelby County’s exploration of a lawsuit would not be impacted by the stance of Nashville’s school district. Shelby County’s board is to discuss selection of an attorney in the matter Wednesday during a specially called meeting.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, Caldwell said, SCS would receive between $40 million and $50 million, well short of the $100 million needed to fully fund the BEP, pay teacher insurance for 12 months, and fund teacher salaries at the state level.

Caldwell also said that the state’s investment in education is not a question of having the money, but of setting priorities. “To fully fund schools for all districts in Tennessee would only be about 5 percent of the full state budget,” Caldwell said. “Where else in the state budget can we impact so many things – poverty, having an educated workforce, increasing tax revenues, reducing crime?”

Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address.

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said the governor has made education funding a priority during his time in office. The governor’s proposed budget for 2015-16 includes nearly $44 million to account for BEP growth and nearly $100 million to increase teacher salaries. In his State of the State address on Feb. 9, Haslam proclaimed: “While other states are cutting K-12 education, Tennessee continues to be one of the few states in the country to make significant investments.”

If some state school districts decide to take the matter to court, it won’t be the first time. In 1988, 77 small districts filed a lawsuit claiming that the state’s funding formula was inequitable. The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed and, out of that litigation, the BEP was implemented in 1992. In 2007, Gov. Phil Bredesen outlined a plan known as BEP 2.0 to increase the amount of state money to school systems, but an economic downturn dissuaded state officials from implementing it.

In 2013, concerns about BEP funding began to intensify when MNPS representatives discovered fundamental questions about the state’s funding formula.

“Other school boards around the state will tell you point blank that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Jesse Register and the Nashville school board,” said MNPS board member Will Pinkston.

“He early on flagged the information and shared it with the other districts around the state. The idea that he’s now back-peddling in a pretty extraordinary way is interesting,” said Pinkston, calling Register’s latest recommendation “an amazing flip-flop.”

Whatever the MNPS board decides, district advocates anticipate that leaders of other school systems will continue to explore their options.

“At this point, it’s all about gathering information,” said Robert Gowan, lobbyist for the Coalition of Large Area School Systems. “None of the districts that have voted so far have voted to authorize litigation. All they’re talking about is gathering information and getting legal advice. They want to move forward thoughtfully and determine how best to proceed.”

Contact Marta W. Aldrich at maldrich@chalkbeat.org

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grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.