After several months of debate and deliberation, the Hamilton County Board of Education voted Thursday night to pursue the first step toward filing suit against the state about the lack of adequate funding of the Basic Education Program. Two weeks ago, Knox County voted to pursue the same course of action. While Knox and Hamilton are the first, we do not expect to be the last.
There are many factors that have led me to believe that this is in the best interest of our students, employees and taxpayers of Hamilton County.
Hamilton County is a donor county, which means we pay significantly more in sales tax than we receive back due to the BEP funding formula. As a county we put the sixth most into state coffers, but we receive the third least in return. Through property taxes, we must make up the difference between what the state mandates, such as required intervention models for at-risk students, testing and accountability measures, and special education requirements, and what the state actually funds. The fact that the state has never fully funded its own formula has come to the point where we can longer ignore it.
We cannot ignore the fact that under Gov. Bill Haslam's budget proposal of $100 million that is allocated to raise teacher salaries 4 percent, Hamilton County will only receive $3.2 million, which is just over 1 percent for our employees. To meet the remaining 3 percent, our local government will be required to make up the difference of almost $6 million.
This chronic disparity in the funding formula, and the fact that by the legislature's own review committee the state underestimates teacher salaries by about $10,000, strains our local resources. In total, as the formula is written by the legislature (not the local boards of education), we are underfunded by $14 million every year. If the review committee's (whose members are appointed and tasked by the legislature to evaluate the Basic Education Plan) numbers are used, that number grows to a $40 million shortfall in state funding for Hamilton County alone.
The magnitude of these figures is staggering. We are tasked with paying for $40 million in unfunded mandates.
The moment I realized we, as a board, had no other option was when our local delegation was interviewed by the Times Free Press editorial board and was asked about their position on fully funding the BEP. Their responses were simply unacceptable to me as a taxpayer, parent, property owner, business owner and resident.
State Rep. Mike Carter said, "There's no law that says you can't raise taxes to fund education, so if you want to raise them, raise them." Sen. Todd Gardenhire followed that by stating, "If the county wants to fund education, then let them put that $100,000 in discretionary funds toward education. It's time to put their money where their mouth is."
The flippancy of both statements defies logic and reason. Sen. Gardenhire seems to ignore the fact that most of the discretionary funds already go toward our schools. Simple math shows that if all nine commissioners put $100,000 toward education, that is only $900,000 -- nowhere near the $14 million to $40 million we are lacking from the state's own review.
Rep. Carter's response was even more troubling. When we have no input into our requirements or the mandates placed upon us but are given total responsibility to come into compliance, then, yes, we can raise taxes to meet those demands. But it's not the local board raising taxes. It is the state legislature raising local taxes.
It is intellectually dishonest to require us to fulfill mandates, provide no means to do so and then to continue to tout that they have not raised taxes. The state legislature has raised taxes even if it didn't have the courage or the honesty to do so itself.
The lack of leadership on this has been stunning. Our local school board has controlled costs on insurance and benefits and kept the growth of these expenses at about 4 percent a year since 2012 by making difficult decisions. In comparison, the state's TennCare budget has exploded by $531 million since 2012 alone. That is over 19 percent. If that was cut by half, still almost a 10 percent increase, then the BEP could be fully funded.
It's against this backdrop that I chose to vote to pursue litigation.
Jonathan Welch is a Signal Mountain dentist and is the District 2 representative on the Hamilton County Board of Education.