School Finance

Updated: Success Act gets some important tweaks

Updated 11:45 a.m. – The House Appropriations Committee Friday approved the Student Success Act on a 13-0 vote after adding key amendments, including a $110 million reduction in the negative factor.

The vote clears the measure for House floor debate, which is expected to come Monday, according to prime sponsor Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.

The measure, House Bill 14-1292, is the 2014 session’s key piece of K-12 finance legislation and has been the focus of intense lobbying and controversy. (Get background here.)

Negotiations since the bill was passed by the House Education Committee on March 19 produced the amendments approved by appropriations. They include:

  • The $110 million reduction in the $1 billion negative factor. The previous version of the bill proposed $100 million.
  • Elimination of $40 million in aid to districts for implementation of reform laws.
  • Removal of $30.5 million in funding for English language learner programs, funding that will be moved into the 2014-15 School Finance Act, House Bill 14-l298. That measure is awaiting appropriations committee action. (The current combined price tag on the two measures now is about $450 million.)
  • Elimination of the bill section that would have required the state switch to the average daily membership system of enrollment counting. Instead the Department of Education would be required to study new ways of counting enrollment.
  • Modification of a section providing $13 million of per-pupil funding for charter school facilities. Now half the money in the first year would go to a reserve fund that backs charter borrowing.

Remaining in the bill is $20 million in additional support for school districts to implement the READ Act.

Some differences remain unresolved

Asked about support for the amended bill, prime sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, said, “This has been a work in progress … we’re not finished. … We have built a lot of support. Are we there yet? Probably not.”

Any talk of full compromise is premature, given that differences remain between sponsors and bill critics on two key issues.

The first is the bill’s proposal that $40 million in projected marijuana tax revenues be used for kindergarten classroom construction, school technology grants and charter facilities funding. BEST advocates want that money to go the program’s main account for use by the Capital Construction Assistance Board. A floor amendment to do that is expected in the House. Lobbyists also believe they have support for the change in the Senate.

The other contentious issue is HB 14-1292’s proposal to spend $5 million for creation of a website that would report school-level data on spending, including total salaries and benefits. School districts and unions have pushed back on that, arguing it would be burdensome and duplicate information already available to the public. But the so-called transparency provision is a priority for the governor’s office.

And, districts still would like to have a larger reduction in the negative factor. The odds of that happening may be long, given concern on the part of legislative leaders about the long-term financial impact of doing that.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.