Town hall raises questions on funding formula

·11 min read

Dec. 2—School districts across the Upper Cumberland are dealing with similar issues: attracting and retaining teachers and staff, maintaining their facilities, and offering the robust curriculum they say their students need.

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn said those concerns need to be made known as the state develops a new funding model for public education.

"Every district is so different. We don't want to have a state system that is one-size-fits all," said Schwinn during the final of eight town hall meetings on a student-centered funding formula being developed by 150 members appointed to 18 funding subcommittees.

She encouraged everyone to "think big" about what they want for public education for students, for future workers, for teachers.

"We're building this formula in real time based on the feedback we are getting from town halls, emails, Twitter town halls or the people who are stopping me in Kroger — that happened last week, and that's great, too," Schwinn said.

The state is looking at a student-based funding model. In this type of model, districts receive a base amount of funding per student. Additional funds are added to provide more supports for students with higher needs, like students with disabilities, rural students or economically disadvantaged students.

A new formula could be presented to the Tennessee General Assembly when it reconvenes in January and Gov. Bill Lee makes his budget proposal. Subcommittees began meeting in October.

Schwinn said the formula was intended for public school funding — not vouchers or taking public education dollars to private schools.

Schwinn said, if approved, she would expect a transition period of 14 to 16 months.

School systems would be accountable for how funds are spent, with accountability measures and public transparency.

"A state formula should generate an amount of money that would allow the district to be successful, but the district should be able to decide how that money is spent to generate the outcomes we are expecting," Schwinn said.

She said a student-based funding model is different from "money follows kids."

"What we're talking about today is the formula, which is how money comes to our public school system — and we are talking about our public school system," Schwinn said.

The plan, if approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, would replace the Basic Education Program, a resource-based funding model first developed in 1992 to address inequities in school funding across the state following a lawsuit brought by 77 rural school districts in 1988.

But inequities still exist between large school systems and small rural schools.

"I want to be sure that what we worked so hard to avoid — that geography being destiny — is taken into consideration into whatever formula we have," said Deb Whittaker, a Jackson County educator. "We have to do the same thing that districts 10 times our size do, with one-tenth the people."

She said the rural community has no public transportation, no hospital, and one physician. That leads to issues that the school system has had to step up to address.

"We are putting kids on a school bus and taking them to the dentist," Whittaker said. "We are feeding kids, clothing kids, sometimes bathing kids. Some of this stress needs to be taken off because our real job is teaching kids."

Parent Florence Agee said when her oldest child went to Jackson County schools, she had to pay for her to take advanced math classes through Tennessee Technological University because the school system didn't offer the courses. She anticipates the same situation for her younger child.

"There are not enough classes at the high school level to prepare our students for college," Agee said.

The state currently has a pilot program to expand access to Advanced Placement courses through remote learning. That could be something the state looks at expanding in the future to expand availability of advanced courses, Schwinn said.

No specifics on the formula are available at this time. That has several school leaders concerned and cautious.

White County Director of Schools Kurt Dronebarger asked, ""How can anyone be in favor of a new funding formula if we've not seen any of the details? ... Is the new plan already written? You say no, but when will it be written? And when will it be provided before it hits the house floor?"

He pointed to a pending lawsuit brought by 89 school district alleging inadequate state education funding was set for trial next spring. That trial has been delayed until after the next legislative session, outlets reported yesterday.

He also questioned if the new funding plan would lead to vouchers to use public education funding for private school costs. The state is currently appealing a state appeals court decision that found Tennessee's education saving account program was unconstitutional. That program, approved in 2019 in a controversial vote, only applied to Davidson and Shelby county students.

"Commissioner Schwinn, you've been quoted as saying there is no perfect formula, so why not attempt to fix an imperfect formula instead of rush into another imperfect formula?" Dronebarger said. "It makes me wonder if there's an ulterior political motive."

County leaders present questioned how the new formula would impact local funding requirements.

Many small communities depend on property tax to fund their schools, said Jackson County Mayor Randy Heady.

"You burden an at-risk community if funding for schools drops. I would encourage you to weigh that. We need, at the least, what we're getting now. It would be nice to get more," Heady said.

He said one area the state could help would be increased funding for benefits for teachers.

Schwinn said a student-based funding model might provide additional funds for rural communities based on student needs.

"It might not be as expensive to live as it is in Nashville, there may be a lot of things that need to be purchased," she said, like buses or additional student resources.

"We want to think about those differences in regions across the state, because we know there are fewer people doing a lot more work."

Cannon County Director of Schools William Freddy Curtis said his county is considered urban fringe because it borders Rutherford County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

Yet, he said his community is very much "rural" and is facing challenges in keeping teachers in their community.

"We can't keep our teachers, must less recruit new teachers," Curtis said.

His school system is struggling with aging school buildings, and his county's property tax base pales in comparison to the neighboring Rutherford County.

"But we're expected to do the same," Curtis said.

Cannon County was among the school systems that sued the state in the 1990s for more equitable school funding — 30 years later, Curtis questioned if his school system was equitable to Rutherford County schools.

"Absolutely not. We need to get that done," he said. "We need a funding formula that is fair across the board so you can get the same education in Cannon County that you get in metro Nashville or any other part of the state."

Schwinn said an invitation to a local funding regional meeting is forthcoming to representatives of county commissions, directors of schools, county mayors, chief financial officers, and the school board chairman.

"It looks different in every single district. It is something that is very unique to the needs of the district, both where they are now and where they will be in five years," she said.

Mark Farley, executive director of the Upper Cumberland Development District, encouraged the state to increase funding for public education as it develops a new formula.

"If there is one thing I've heard tonight, it's the need for more money," he said.

The injection of funding for Drive to 55 has improved educational outcomes for post-secondary students, Farley said.

"I can't help believe that if we have another injection of funding coming into our communities, we'll see even greater growth in our workforce," Farley said.

Several individuals pointed out deficiencies in the BEP formula, which allocates funding for teachers, administrators and support staff based on total student enrollment in a school system. However, those estimates often come in far below the number of teachers and staff needed to meet mandates for class size and to offer additional courses.

Many staffing ratios also do not meet best practices for staffing. For example, the formula funds one school nurse for every 3,000 students. National best practices is one nurse for every 750 students. For school counselors, the BEP provides funding for one counselor for every 500 elementary students and one for every 350 students in grades 7-12. Best practices would be one counselor for every 250 students.

Those changes were recommended by the Tennessee BEP Review Committee in August, with an estimated cost of $110 million each year.

Dronebarger asked, "How does the state know the current BEP is unworkable if it's not been adequately funded for decades? Has anyone considered redefining the term 'basic'?"

He pointed to the state's $1.5 billion rainy day fund, which he said could help address some of those deficiencies.

Tennessee recently ranked 45th in the nation for K-12 education funding, he noted, but has some of the highest expectations for students and teacher accountability.

Kacee Harris, Cumberland County schools chief financial officer, said schools need to be able to offer higher salaries, not just for the teachers and certified personnel, but the other staff that make school systems operate.

"Make sure we're paying them enough that they can come in and focus on our kids and give them what they need," Harris said.

While the proposed best practices for staffing school nurses would be an improvement, Harris said the state should go beyond those figures to ensure every school has a school nurse and a mental health counselor.

"When you need them, you need them," she said.

School systems face many unfunded mandates, like minimum amounts of physical education for students each week — but they need more PE teachers to make that possible. And students also need access to art and music each week, Harris said.

Response to Instruction and Intervention requires a lot of data collection. Harris recommended an RTI coordinator and an RTI paraprofessional for every school. She also said class sizes should be evaluated, even at the high school level where classes can have as many as 35 students in a class. Teachers also need funding for classroom materials, enrichment materials and other items that help enrich lessons and read-aloud-books.

School districts also need funding for human resources, finance and bookkeeping responsibilities, with a computer technician for every school. And building maintenance needs to be considered, as well.

"The center stone of so many kids, families, communities, towns, our country, is the public school house. Whatever this funding formula ends up being, I hope that it protects and grows our public schools," Harris said.

Cumberland County Commissioner Wendell Wilson asked where a student-centered funding model had been successfully implemented in the country. Schwinn said 39 states have moved to the model, with only 11 schools still using a resource-based model like the BEP.

Recent states transitioning to a student-based model include Maryland, Ohio, Massachusetts and Texas. Those models have been provided to subcommittee members, Schwinn said, though she added a formula has not been developed yet.

"They all did move from a resource-based to a student-based funding model," she said.

Documents from subcommittee meetings are available to the public through the Tennessee Department of Education website, tn.gov/education/ under Tennessee K-12 Public Education Funding Engagement, with meeting agendas, presentations and recordings from each meeting posted online.

Schwinn said when there has been a new funding formula, that "usually" comes with additional funding to support the needs — though the legislature is responsible for allocating funds.

Cumberland County Commissioner Deborah Holbrook said many questions remain that need to be answered before moving forward with a new funding formula.

"There are a lot of background questions that make those of us who are watching this a little suspicious," she said.

"I think they need to be answered clearly and out front. We don't know the motivation. We don't know if money is going to be flowing out of systems instead of into them. We don't know if this is some sort of sneak attack."

Schwinn said that the funding formula under construction is for public school funding.

Anything related to vouchers or education saving plans would require a separate policy, she said.

"We are talking about public schools," she said. "That is what is in the purview of this conversation."

Individuals can provide comments by email to tnedu.funding@tn.gov.

Sign up at tn.gov/education/tnedufunding.html for updates on the process.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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