It's official. Hamilton County Schools votes to sue Tennessee. Here's why.

hamilton county school bus tile
photo Jonathan Welch

Toilet paper -- or the struggle that an area high school has paying for it -- was one of the reasons cited Thursday night for the Hamilton County Board of Education's 8-1 vote to sue Tennessee over the Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula through which the state funds public schools.

Copper Basin High School in Polk County has trouble buying toilet paper for its students while meeting all the mandates handed down by the state, said D. Scott Bennett, the attorney for the Hamilton County Department of Education and a number of other area school districts, including Polk County Schools.

So the Polk County school board recently voted to sue the state over the BEP, Bennett said, as have Bradley, Marion and Coffee counties. The Grundy County school board was slated to decide Thursday whether to sue, but the result was not available at press time. McMinn County Schools will decide Monday.

The Hamilton County Department of Education will lead the charge. Signal Mountain school board member Jonathan Welch made the motion to file a suit -- unless Gov. Bill Haslam can present a plan endorsed by the leadership of the General Assembly to adequately fund the BEP. That would have to occur, Welch's motion states, during a March 23 meeting that the governor will have with superintendents of Tennessee's four largest school districts, including Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith.

"We have to realize that kids need toilet paper in Polk County," said Welch.

He also cited a long list of ways Hamilton County parents, teachers and donors have to make up what school officials say is roughly $13 million the state shortchanges the school district annually. A Signal Mountain family of three pays between $1,000 and $1,200 out of pocket to fund extracurricular activities, Welch said, and Red Bank High School only has the Chromebooks it needs for academic testing because of a $650,000 donation from the Benwood Foundation that put the laptop computers in several schools.

"They couldn't do testing without the Chromebooks at Red Bank," Welch said. "It was on the benevolence of others."

In the past, small Tennessee school districts have successfully sued the state three times to increase their share of BEP funding. But Bennett said this time, districts large and small are banding together to increase the overall size of the pie.

"Why are they holding this money hostage?"

"This is not just about the four large districts," Bennett told the board. "These [smaller] districts are looking to Hamilton County primarily because we got the conversation started."

Hamilton County school officials say the state doesn't provide enough funding for numerous expenses, including teachers' pay and health insurance. The state underestimates by about $10,000 what teachers are actually paid, they say, and the state only pays for 10 months of teachers' 12 months of insurance.

"The state has simply chosen to ignore their own laws," Bennett said. He said the state Constitution guarantees the right to a free public K-12 education for all.

Hixson school board member Greg Martin cast the sole vote against the lawsuit, saying the matter should be settled in the political arena, not the judicial.

In other business, the school board voted to ask the Hamilton County Commission to purchase up-to-date security cameras in all 76 county schools and to drop the commission's recent demand to fund cameras on the condition that proceeds from the future sale of the East Brainerd Elementary School property be divided evenly between the commission's nine districts, which mirror the county's school board districts.

"Why are they holding this money hostage?" asked Soddy-Daisy board member Rhonda Thurman.

The resolution passed 8-1, with Ooltewah board member Steve Highlander casting the sole no vote.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at [email protected] or or or 423-757-6651.