Longtime school needs costing millions dropped from new BEP panel report

In this Tuesday, April 15, 2014, photo, Brianna Reed, 7, center, reads out loud to the rest of the participating students at Knowledge Quest, one of dozens of nonprofit groups with an after-school tutoring program in Memphis, Tenn. The Shelby County Schools system is going to hire a lawyer so the district can begin the "appropriate legal action" to force the state to properly fund schools through the Basic Education Program.
photo The Hamilton County Department of Education is seen in this file photo.

No longer included

The following items were dropped from this year’s BEP Review Committee report:› Fully implement BEP 2.0: $133.9 million› Decrease ratio of psychologists to students from 1 per 2,500 students to 1 per 500: $57.5 million› Decrease funding ratios of elementary counselors to students elementary counselors from 1 per 500 students to 1 per 250: $39.4 million› Decrease funding ratio for secondary counselors from 1 per 350 students to 1 per 250: $18.07 million› Reduce 7-12 class sizes by 3 students: $88 million› New BEP component for mentors at one per 12 students: $17.6 million› Professional development (1% of instructional salaries): $25.6 million› Reduce ratios for nurses from 1 per 3,000 students to 1 per 1,500: $12.2 million› Reduce ratios for technology coordinators from 1 per 6,400 to 1 per 3,200: $4.15 million› Increase funding for teacher materials and supplies by $100: $6.3 million› Instructional technology coordinator (1 per LEA): $5.3 millionSource: 2014 BEP Annual Report, pages 5-7

NASHVILLE - A state panel that makes annual recommendations for improving Tennessee's school-funding formula has abruptly dropped years of previously made and often-ignored priorities from its latest report.

Those same dust-gathering recommendations were cited last spring by local education boards in a lawsuit alleging the state is not paying anywhere near the actual costs of educating students.

The exclusion of most past recommendations from the Basic Education Program Review Committee's Nov. 1 report roused suspicions.

"What changed?" asked Dr. Jonathan Welch, a Hamilton County school board member. Hamilton and six nearby counties sued Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers last spring over funding. Shelby County school leaders have filed a separate suit.

Welch said the annual report "was very consistent for years and then it was different this year."

Asked if he thought the dropped items had anything to do with the lawsuit, Welch said, "it may. I think that's a question for the Review Committee and those who put it together."

Dr. Sara Heyburn, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, said in an email that the review committee's move had nothing to do with the two lawsuits pending before a Davidson County judge.

"The BEP report reflects the BEP Review Committee's 2015 priorities as well as a collective, ongoing commitment to Tennessee's teachers and students," Heyburn said. She noted that the report and recommendations were adopted with no dissenting votes at public meetings, and said there was a "concerted effort to make the 2015 documents more succinct and focused for the state's policy makers."

The committee deleted an entire section that was listed in the 2014 document as "Additional BEP Formula Improvements Recommended in Previous Years as an extended priority."

One dropped item was continued implementation of the 2007 formula revamp known as BEP 2.0. Others included reducing class sizes and creating new components for professional development and mentoring; doubling the number of school nurses from one per 3,000 students to one per 1,500, and adding technology coordinators. Most go back to at least 2007.

Implementing them all would take hundreds of millions of dollars. Just bringing teacher salaries up to BEP 2.0 standards would cost $532 million, Hamilton County says.

The BEP Review Committee whose members include Finance Commissioner Larry Martin and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, did list three priorities for the State Board of Education, Haslam and lawmakers to consider in next year's budget:

' Funding the 12th month of teachers' year-round health insurance at a cost of $30.4 million annually. The state had been funding 10 months of insurance, but raised it to 11 earlier this year.

' Support Haslam's goal for Tennessee "becoming the fastest improving state in teacher salaries during his time in office and increasing the BEP salary component accordingly." No cost amount is listed. This year, Haslam and lawmakers provided $100 million for teacher compensation.

' Ending a "perverse incentive" for schools to prevent qualified students from graduating earlier, at a cost of $5.24 million.

Hamilton County school board attorney Scott Bennett, who filed the lawsuit, could not be reached over the weekend for comment. But some education observers think the committee recommendation may actually help Hamilton County in the litigation.

Meanwhile, a Review Committee member told the Times Free Press he didn't know the previous recommendations had been excluded. In fact, he didn't recall it being discussed.

"Until you mentioned it to me I hadn't noticed," said a puzzled David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Services Association. "There was no discussion in the meetings about eliminating prior recommendations."

Wayne Miller, another committee member, wasn't overly concerned by the omissions.

"My impression is not that anyone's minimizing the previous recommendations," said Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, which represents the 141 local schools chiefs.

He said the priorities in the current report "outweighed the others in the past [reports] and there's real hope the ones that are mentioned this time have a real chance to be funded."

Several committee members did not return telephone calls Friday.


Tennessee's Constitution requires the state to offer a free system of public education.

The 1992 Basic Education Program came out of a lawsuit filed by rural districts who argued they were treated unfairly under the old formula.

Tennessee Supreme Court justices later declared the old formula unconstitutional and said the BEP was fairer. Two later court decisions required additional state action in areas such as teacher salaries.

The $4 billion BEP has 45 education-related components ranging from teacher-student ratios to transportation costs. Local governments share costs based on their ability to raise money.

In 2007, Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and lawmakers created BEP 2.0 after lawsuit threats by then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, who charged the BEP discriminated against the urban district.

The new formula was funded partially with a cigarette tax hike. Haslam and Republican lawmakers have shown no inclination to fund the remainder of BEP 2.0. Haslam says a number of districts dislike the formula because it would reduce the size of their annual funding increases.

The new committee report drew a stinging denunciation from Andy Spears, a policy analyst who blogs about education. The panel met only twice in a six-day period, he said.

"Historically, it has been a multi-month process which included significant review and discussion of funding issues," Spears said in an email. "This report makes no mention of the hundreds of millions of dollars Tennessee districts are shorted each year due to lack of adequate funding for BEP 2.0, school nurses, reducing class size and correcting salary disparities, among other items.

"In the face of lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the BEP, this year's report seems a deliberate attempt to avoid tough issues," Spears charged.

Will Pinkston, a Metro Nashville school board member and former Bredesen aide, said that while he hasn't read the report in detail, "at first glance it does not appear to do anything to meaningfully address the universally recognized inadequacies in the BEP program."

He noted that "there has been virtually zero commitment" by the state to fulfill BEP 2.0 since Bredesen's administration.

"If indeed they're now trying to wiggle out," Pinkston said, " I predict you'll see more and more school systems go into court."

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