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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions after he spoke to a joint session of the Legislature at the start of a special session on education, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — As Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee prepares to outline his spending and policy priorities Monday during his annual State of the State address, the state's largest teachers' union is challenging the Republican to go big on education funding in the fiscal year 2022 budget he will propose.

Pointing to what she said is more than $1 billion in unanticipated state tax revenue, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown said in an opinion piece that the state now ranks 46th nationally when it comes to investment per student.

"Our funding is so low the only neighboring state we beat is Mississippi," wrote Brown, a Grundy County teacher. "To meet Kentucky's per student investment, the state would need $2.6 billion; to match Arkansas, the increase would be $860 million; and to be on par with Alabama would require $560 million this year alone."

The "pitiful condition of education funding is a state problem," Brown continued.

Lee, a Republican, declined last week to say what specific amount he will be recommending to the GOP-led General Assembly when it comes to K-12 education.

"We are going to announce our initiatives and talk about them on Monday night in the State of the State," the governor said in response to a Times Free Press reporter's question on education funding.

His comments came as he was joined by majority Republicans in the Legislature as he signed several laws passed during the special session he called on education earlier this month. Among them was a bill providing nearly $43 million for a new infusion into public education.

"Our intent is to lay out those budget proposals then, and we expect there'll be proposals through the legislature for additional pay for teachers," Lee added.

Tennessee revenues have exceeded estimates both in fiscal 2020 and so far this year by a combined $1.3 billion. The state's funding board is known for its low-ball revenue projections, although defenders of the practice argue it's helped keep the state out of trouble. This year's current total budget is some $39.4 billion, which includes $14.6 billion in federal funding.

The nonpartisan Sycamore Institute, a Nashville-based research institution, estimates Tennessee actually could have as much as $3.1 billion in revenues over estimates. That includes fiscal 2020, which ended July 1, and the first part of this year. It also includes a mixture of one-time and recurring revenue.

State Finance Commissioner Butch Eley said in a statement to the Times Free Press on Sunday that administration officials "remain cautiously optimistic. Clearly, revenues have exceeded expectations; however, we are maintaining our practice of preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best – and beginning to turn our focus back on the governor's priorities of economic growth even in the distressed areas, creating jobs and improving education.

State of the State address:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will give his State of the State address Monday at 7 p.m. ET in which he will outline his spending and policy priorities. The speech can be found Lee’s Facebook and YouTube channels and will be aired statewide on public television stations and some local television stations.

"Last year we took several immediate actions" due to the COVID-19 pandemic "and those actions put us in a position of being very prepared, putting ourselves in a good position for recovery," Eley added.

Tennessee has also reaped the benefit of billions of dollars in federal stimulus funding over the course of the pandemic in areas ranging from coronavirus-related infrastructure funding for thousands of schools to unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said in an interview that "the governor has indicated that his budget will have a proposal to increase teacher salaries."

And that, Watson said, will "create a conversation around the legislature about what's a teacher and who gets it and all of that stuff. I think there will be a lot of discussion."

Legislators in Hamilton and Knox counties say they're tired of hearing that pay increases for teachers aren't getting to them in the amounts discussed. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has reintroduced legislation to put a definition of "classroom teacher" into the state's Basic Education Program funding formula.

It would define a "classroom teacher" as an educator who spends at least 50% of their time teaching in a classroom physically or, in these days of COVID-19, in a virtual setting with students. Gardenhire acknowledges he will likely have a difficult time passing it.

The state now apportions its classroom component personnel spending to employees who have teaching certificates whether they teach in a classroom or are a librarian, assistant principal or other staffer.

Watson said he also believes Lee will return to other bills he was pushing before the coronavirus' eruption in Tennessee back in March. That could include a criminal justice reform bill the governor had sought.

Lee, meanwhile, is also going to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on Tennessee.

"I do think we have encouraging news ahead," he said. "I think we are all very cautiously optimistic about what the future holds. But it doesn't negate the price that was paid as a result of this tremendous public health crisis. But we're working to mitigate that."

According to the Tennessee Department of Health's latest website figures, there have been 744,600 confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases in the state and 10,469 deaths since the first known case last March. In Hamilton County, there have been 38,169 confirmed or probable cases, while 410 have died.

As a sign of the times, Lee won't be holding his State of the State address in the state Capitol's House chamber. Instead, the governor will deliver his speech to the 132 legislators and others inside the War Memorial building. It can accomodate them more easily in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

 

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