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Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his annual State of the State address to the Tennessee Legislature in Nashville in this Feb. 9, 2015, file photo.

School systems sue Tennessee over education funding


Seven Chattanooga area school systems have filed suit against the state of Tennessee for not sufficiently funding local schools as mandated under the law.

The suit comes a day after Rick Smith declared that he was "pleased" with the outcome of a meeting between Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and several school system superintendents who have expressed displeasure with the state's level of education funding. 

Today's lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, alleges that the state has "breached its duty under the Tennessee Constitution to provide a system of free public education for the children of this state."

The suit further alleges that Tennessee's Board of Education "has instead created a system that impermissibly shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in substantially unequal education opportunities across the state."

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Rick Smith

The local school systems name Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell, and a handful of other officials who serve on the Tennessee Board of Education as defendants. 

Much of the schools' argument hinges on whether or not Tennessee has complied with its Basic Education Program, known in education circles as the BEP. The school systems allege that apart from a one-time adjustment that did not close the funding gap, the General Assembly has never appropriated the funds necessary to include the cost of teachers within its funding formula. 

This includes a failure to provide for the cost of teachers' health insurance, according to the lawsuit, creating a funding discrepancy of some $64 million. 

The state also falls short on funding classroom costs, resulting in an annual shortfall of about $134 million, according to the suit. 

The net result of these shortfalls is that less affluent communities don't have enough money to run their schools, the school boards allege. 

Asked what had happened to the apparent "kumbaya" moment between Haslam, Smith and the other superintendents, Jonathan Welch, a Hamilton County school board member, told the Times Free Press that "based on what we had voted two weeks ago authorizing the bill, we appreciated the governor's dialogue and we look forward to continuing that. But we need to press forward at this point."

Haslam has previously warned that litigation makes it more difficult to discuss issues.

Welch said he doesn't think it will: "No, I think there are things all the time where things are negotiated" despite a lawsuit being filed.

After Monday's meeting, Haslam and the superintendents, including Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith, said they were working to resolve some funding issues, although Haslam noted there were both short-term and long-term considerations and steps involved.

Smith told reporters he was "pleased with today's conversation" and said he and fellow superintendents "really appreciated" the governor taking time to discuss problems.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said in a statement that the governor "is very disappointed after he and the commissioner made the commitment yesterday to a collaborative process to work closely with districts on these issues, and litigation will obviously decrease potential for collaboration."

Read more in tomorrow's Times Free Press.