Hamilton County schools continue fight for more funding

Hamilton County schools continue fight for more funding

February 19th, 2016 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Attorneys for the Hamilton County Schools system and the state of Tennessee will be back before a Davidson County judge today on local schools' lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the state's school funding formula.

In September, Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman delayed ruling on a request by Hamilton County and six nearby districts to grant class-action status in the lawsuit over the state's Basic Education Program funding formula.

Bonnyman also said at the time she would first need to address Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery's motion to dismiss the lawsuit in its entirety.

Neither Hamilton County nor the state on Thursday were predicting whether the chancellor would make a decision today on the state's motion to dismiss, let alone the request to include all 141 school districts in the litigation. The county charges the BEP is underfunded by more than $500 million and that has adversely impacted schools across Tennessee.

Last fall, state attorneys sought a delay on their dismissal motion, citing complications created by the filing of a second lawsuit against the state by Shelby County, Tennessee's largest public school system.

The state argues the Haslam administration and state lawmakers are making good-faith efforts to improve school funding.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Thursday he hopes Bonnyman "decides that the Legislature makes the decision on how educational money is spent rather than judges making the decision.

"I would add that I'm disappointed the school board would sue their constituents for a tax increase, because that's what it would take," McCormick said.

McCormick also noted that in the current budget Republican Gov. Bill Haslam put in $100 million for teacher salary increases and another $44 million to fund the BEP formula. Haslam also added another $30 million to cover the state's share for an 11th month of health insurance for teachers, one of the issues Hamilton and the other counties raise in the lawsuit.

Haslam's recommended budget for fiscal year 2017, released last month, includes another $104.6 million for BEP salary improvements plus $48.8 million to cover increased numbers of students as well as inflation. He put in another $40.2 million for BEP formula enhancement and $45 million to cover the state's share of a 12th month of health insurance.

But at the same time, Haslam froze continued implementation of BEP 2.0, a change in the funding formula that former Gov. Phil Bredesen added to help urban systems like Hamilton County's. That was an effort to fend off a threatened lawsuit over BEP funding by then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, who later became Haslam's top deputy.

Buoyed by burgeoning tax revenues and cost savings, Haslam has $746.4 million in recurring revenue for his FY 17 spending proposal. An estimated 33 percent of that is going to K-12 education.

Scott Bennett, the Hamilton County Board of Education's attorney, said in response to McCormick's assertions that the governor's budget "illustrates that there is plenty of money for the state to fulfill its constitutional duty to fund public education without a tax increase. The only real question is whether the state's priorities are in keeping with the constitution."

Bennett added that while Haslam's proposed increases to the BEP salary component "look good on paper, [they] do not address the existing funding gap between what the state allocates for teacher pay and what local boards must actually spend.

"The reason is that this new money is going to higher salaries, not to backfill the present shortfall," he added.

After Hamilton County filed the lawsuit last year, Republican lawmakers quickly retaliated by passing a law stating that any system suing the state would have to pay the state's costs if it loses. In court filings, Hamilton County cites that law as justification for class-action status, saying the provision has discouraged some systems from joining the lawsuit.

This year, two lawmakers want to go further. They have introduced separate proposals aimed at the Tennessee Constitution's requirement that state government maintain a system of free education. The provision was the basis of landmark state Supreme Court victories by smaller school systems in the 1990s over unequal school funding. The then-pending litigation spurred then-Gov. Ned McWherter and state lawmakers to create the BEP.

The lawmakers' resolutions, if approved, would go to voters. Both would allow Tennessee to inject what money they wish in K-12 education.

Hamilton County and the other systems are citing the same provision in the current lawsuits.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.