Hamilton County Schools' five-year-old lawsuit against the state of Tennessee over school funding was dismissed in court last week.
The Hamilton County Board of Education voted unanimously in October to dismiss the case, citing advice from the board's legal counsel and the work state legislators have done to improve the state's school funding formula, known as the Basic Education Plan (BEP).
The case was dropped in Davidson County's Chancery Court on Jan. 2, Chalkbeat Tennessee reports, but two of the state's largest school districts — Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools — are still set to go to trial over their own case later this year.
Hamilton County, along with six other school districts, filed the lawsuit in March 2015, arguing the state wasn't providing sufficient funding for schools. Months later, Shelby County followed suit and also filed a lawsuit, stating the lack of funding especially hurts the district's large share of poor students. Metro Nashville Public Schools joined two years later.
The lawsuits brought against the state each broadly claim schools are not receiving the funding entitled to them under the BEP funding formula and each lawsuit describes specific ways the lack of funding impacts the districts individually.
Within months of the filings, Kevin Steiling, deputy attorney general at the Tennessee Attorney General's Office, argued that the cases should be dismissed. At the time, then-Hamilton County school board chairman Jonathan Welch defended the lawsuits, but also said he hoped the state could resolve the issue outside the classroom.
"Multiple areas of the state share the same difficulties, which is the difference between the funding that is allocated and the amount that we are required to provide our students," Welch said at the time. "Ideally the general assembly will help this come to a resolution outside the courtroom."
In August 2015, Hamilton County Schools amended its lawsuit, which was accepted by a judge on Aug. 6, 2015, despite the state's objection.
The amended lawsuit noted the BEP Review Committee's report in November 2014 that "concluded that the General Assembly is underfunding education in Tennessee by hundreds of million of dollars," and the failure of the state to fund mandates and the additional costs school boards are forced to take on in order to comply with changing state standards.
At the school board's Oct. 17, 2019, meeting, now-chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, made the motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
"On the advice of our counsel in regards to BEP litigation, he has recommended to us that there is no reason for us to pursue the matter for all the reasons that we have discussed," Wingate said.
Most of the discussions about the lawsuit, though, have happened during executive sessions of the school board, which are closed to the public because of attorney-client privilege.
Board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, said he was only in support of dropping the lawsuit because of the work that the Hamilton County legislative delegation has done to increase school funding.
"While it's not where we want it to be on the BEP, they have taken steps and I appreciate our delegation and the steps they have taken to bring us closer to where it should [be]," Highlander said.
Hamilton County school officials, like other school leaders across the state, often have argued that the BEP plan leaves gaps, especially when it comes to how many teachers are funded per student. Recently, the district's Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg told the Times Free Press that Hamilton County has more than 550 teachers over what is funded through the BEP plan.
Board member Tiffany Robinson, of District 4, said at the October board meeting that dropping the case could open up a new opportunity for the school board.
"This is something that this board and previous boards had in play for a long time, and I think this is a good time to maybe start fresh and start thinking differently about how we work with the state legislation on this topic," Robinson said.
Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle has scheduled a Feb. 19 status hearing for Metro Nashville and Shelby County's lawsuit, according to Chalkbeat. If the case moves forward, it could force Tennessee to invest even more in K-12 education funding.
A recent draft report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations showed that 16% of total state expenditures were spent on K-12 public education in 2017-18, Chalkbeat reports.
Hamilton County officials consistently note that more than 60% of the county's entire budget is spent on the public education system each year, a fact that influenced five county commissioners to vote against a property tax rate increase that would have given an additional $34 million to public schools this year.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.