NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he was both "surprised" and "disappointed" that school boards in Hamilton and six nearby counties sued the state over state education funding one day after he met with the superintendents of Tennessee's four largest systems.
"Sure I was surprised from the discussion we had had," Haslam told reporters. "And disappointed. Because I don't think that's how you solve problems. Because we really are making an effort to address that situation."
Haslam said "nobody can say we had a budget that ignored education. We put $144 million in this year's budget. And if you've been around the state budget and realize how little new money there is to use, that's a significant commitment."
The Republican governor said "we're looking at doing everything we can to do more. I just don't know how a lawsuit helps that."
This week's Chancery Court lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Nashville, alleges the state has underfunded its Basic Education Program funding formula, which distributes the state share of funds for public education.
Hamilton, Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Marion, Grundy and Coffee county school boards allege in the suit that the state "breached its duty under the Tennessee Constitution to provide a system of free public education for the children of the state."
The lawsuit was filed less than 24 hours after Haslam met with superintendents of Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties as well as Metro Nashville to discuss what the systems call inadequate funding. Haslam agreed to work on funding issues both short- and long-term.
While the timing of Hamilton County's suit took many by surprise, Dr. Jonathan Welch, a Hamilton County school board member, noted the board motion authorizing the lawsuit specifically cited the then-upcoming meeting on Monday and stated legal action would be taken unless Haslam presented a plan "endorsed" by the General Assembly's leadership.
The schools say districts all across the state have been shorted by hundreds of millions of dollars through the Basic Education Program funding formula. The BEP distributes state dollars for teacher positions, textbooks, transportation and other areas based on enrollment and local government's ability to pay.
At the same time, the suit says, unfunded state mandates have made operations more difficult.
The BEP formula was created in 1992 in response to litigation from small districts, which ultimately won a decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court on their complaints that equal treatment harmed less wealthy systems.
This go-around, the urban Hamilton district and six other smaller districts are arguing adequacy. At issue is not how the pie is sliced but making it larger. And they could be joined by other systems.
Asked if he has concerns about other systems joining in, Haslam said Thursday, "I honestly don't know. We're still going to keep conversations going. At the end of the day the question should always be, what's best for the students in the classroom? And it's hard for me to see how lawsuits are what's best for students in the classroom."
Haslam also said "we're not going to say, now that we've been sued we're going to shut down our efforts. We're still going to try to get to the right outcome."
On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, charged the lawsuit amounts to "suing the state's taxpayers for a tax increase."
But Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, on Thursday called it a "matter of priorities. I think sometimes the prospects of tax increases are thrown out to distract attention away from what our priorities are, and our priorities are the education of students in the state of Tennessee."
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, pointed out a change in the funding formula, dubbed BEP 2.0, has never been fully funded.
"I'd like to be the plaintiff in this case rather than the defendant," said Fitzhugh, who added Tennessee ranks toward the bottom nationally in terms of K-12 funding among states.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.