Resolution seeks to adjust Tennessee school district funding formula

Resolution seeks to adjust Tennessee school district funding formula

December 11th, 2013 by Associated Press in Local - Breaking News

Gov. Bill Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - The Metro Nashville school district wants Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers to adjust the state's school funding formula to adequately fund districts statewide.

The Tennessean reports the Metro school board voted unanimously this week to ask officials to "adequately fund public education" in a way that would allow those districts to meet rigorous new academic standards.

The board said the Basic Education Program, or BEP, hasn't been fully funded since it was overhauled six years ago under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. It claims Nashville, in particular, has been shorted millions of dollars.

Haslam and his education commissioner have also recently drawn fire from the state's three other large school districts who say there are funding inequities in the BEP.

"It's a shared responsibility to educate our students," said school board member Amy Frogge, who sponsored the resolution. "We have a state Legislature that has passed a law, and there's no compliance with the funding aspect of that."

Tennessee has a constitutional obligation to provide free K-12 public education, which it does through the BEP. The program uses demographics, enrollment and other data to determine a local district's allocations.

The resolution cites a November report from the BEP's review committee that found Metro would need an additional $12.7 million on top of the $253.4 million it got this year from the state to become fully funded under the program. Statewide, that gap is $146 million, the report says.

Metro's resolution also references a May report from the U.S. Census Bureau that found Tennessee, at $8,765, is 49th in per-pupil public school funding. That report, the most recent compiled by the bureau, is based on 2011 data and includes state, local and federal resources.

Frogge said she plans to show the resolution to the school boards of Memphis-Shelby County, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Together, they form a lobbying arm at Capitol Hill on behalf of the state's four largest school systems.

Metro officials have long criticized the equity of the BEP funding formula. Major changes were made in the early 1990s to help rural districts, but the current formula allocates fewer dollars to districts such as Metro Nashville that have the capacity to generate more local tax revenue.

In September, an attorney for Metro Nashville Public Schools advised the board to explore whether the BEP is equitable for large school systems such as Nashville. But instead of directing its resolution at the equity of that system, the resolution approved Tuesday questions the adequacy of education funding statewide.

When asked for a comment, Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier did not directly address the adequacy issue, instead focusing on equity.

"With regard to the equity of BEP, there is no one funding formula that will satisfy all districts," she said in a statement. "The reality is that there is a finite amount of money for education in Tennessee, and amending the formula will not change that."

Nevertheless, Haslam has called funding for schools a top priority. During recent departmental budget hearings, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman presented a plan that called for a $57 million increase in education funding. The governor also has unveiled a new goal of making Tennessee the fastest-improving state in teacher salaries.

As for school funding, other states have seen clashes over it turn to litigation. In Kansas, for example, the state Supreme Court is reviewing a suit waged originally by 63 local districts claiming they should be funded at a higher level.

In Tennessee, Metro school board member Will Pinkston said "it's way too early to talk about going to court."

"The first step is to surface concerns - do it collectively with the large districts - and see if the state is willing to listen and have a conversation," said Pinkston, the board's budget and finance committee chairman. "But if all else fails, you reserve the right to pursue legal remedies, but that would be way down the road."