The Hamilton County Schools' budget proposal has generated a number of comments in the last week or so, not least from my own brothers. My direct involvement with the Hamilton County Department of Education goes back about 25 years when my wife and I did what we could to assure that our son's experience with the HCDE special education department produced a good outcome. On the whole, it did. Additionally, for more than 40 years, I've been involved with efforts to assist our schools through the Chamber of Commerce, United Way, ArtsBuild and, most recently, the budget working group assembled at the request of Mayor Jim Coppinger.
For those who have commented on the budget, one of the most common themes is that, for the number of students in our system, we have a lot of schools. Strangely, though, people who are aware of that fact then proceed to compare the cost per student for Hamilton County with the cost per student of school systems that have substantially more students per school. Below are some relevant comparisons:
The correlation is pretty obvious: the more students per school, the lower the cost per student. Why do school systems with more students per school spend less per student? Fewer schools require fewer principals, fewer teachers, fewer maintenance people, fewer administrative people, etc. So wouldn't it make more sense to compare Hamilton County to Shelby County or Metro Nashville instead of Rutherford County? But then we're left wondering how we do so much with so little.
Of course, there are other factors influencing cost per student. For instance, districts with heavy concentrations of economically disadvantaged students, such as Hamiton or Shelby counties, require more resources. Knox County, for instance, spends about $9,556 per student but averages almost 680 students per school (22% higher than HCDE) and has only 40% of its students classified as economically disadvantaged while Hamilton County has more than 60% who are economically disadvantaged.
The criticism of the proposed budget increase seems to be based on the proposition that, until the HCDE improves its efficiency and outcomes, it doesn't deserve an increase in funding. However, until HCDE rationalizes its infrastructure, i.e., reduces and consolidates buildings, just about every factor necessary to improve cost per student militates against that desired improvement.
The people who made the decisions that got us here are long gone. Having no one to blame for the fix we're in is probably a good thing since it solves nothing. On the other hand, we're all responsible for not having dealt with this problem in all of the years that, as a community, we've sought to improve our schools.
The solution will be expensive. Building 10 new schools, for instance, could cost $500 million. If each of those new schools eliminated two existing schools, HCDE would still be under the student-per-school metric of the school systems to which it is being compared.
HCDE has hired a consulting firm to provide an independent, fact-based opinion on a number of facilities issues, including the number of schools needed and where they should be located. Let's get on with fixing this problem once we have that report. Meanwhile, the way we've chosen to function until now has been to penalize our schools' leadership for not operating as efficiently as school districts that are structured efficiently while refusing to spend the resources to create those efficiencies. In this environment, it's amazing that Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his team have had the success they've achieved.
The "let's not and say we did" approach has gone on too long.
Contact Nick Decosimo, a shareholder at Elliott Davis, at email@example.com.