Metro Nashville school, city officials work toward solutions to fund public schools

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With more financial responsibility to fund Metro Nashville Public Schools, Mayor David Briley, Metro Nashville Council members and the MNPS board of education have all expressed their commitment to increasing teacher pay, but they have clashed on how to approach the issue.

Under Briley’s $2.33 billion operating budget approved by Metro Nashville Council on June 18 and updated July 1 to include an additional $7.5 million for MNPS, teachers will receive a 4.5% salary increase during the 2019-20 school year.

However, the 4.5% raise is less than the 10% increase plus a step increase, or a salary increase based on professional experience, requested by the MNPS board of education, and much less than the 17.8% salary increase advocated for by some teachers. Additionally, the budget does not give MNPS employees the $15 per hour minimum wage and step increase provided to other Metro Nashville government employees. According to MNPS, each 1% cost-of-living raise equates to $5 million, while each step increase would cost the district $8 million.

During budget talks earlier this year, council members suggested raising property taxes to pay for a larger salary increase, a move that ultimately failed, leaving many unsatisfied with current funding levels. The push to raise the property tax rate comes a year after council members narrowly rejected a property tax increase for the 2018-19 fiscal year when teachers did not receive a cost-of-living raise.

“The 10% increase came under much debate and [to]the realization that even this amount does not make up for the lack of investment in past years,” said Anna Shepherd, school board member and finance chairperson.

How funding works

State education funds are provided through the Basic Education Program, a $4.7 billion fund balance distributed to school districts based on each county’s financial ability to pay for education. Local school districts fund the remaining portion of the budget.

In a May budget hearing with the Metro Nashville Council, MNPS Chief Operating Officer Chris Henson said even though Metro Nashville’s contribution to MNPS funding continues to rise year over year, the state’s contribution to Davidson County remains flat as a percentage of the overall budget. Henson attributes this to rising property values and sales tax revenue in Davidson County, two factors the Tennessee Department of Education considers when distributing funds.

MNPS’ $914.5 million operating budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which does not include debt service, is funded by state and local tax revenues, with approximately 28% coming from state education funds and 72% from Metro Nashville through local property taxes and local sales tax revenue, according to Metro Nashville Director of Finance Talia Lomax-O’dneal.

During the 2019-20 operating year, MNPS expects to receive slightly less than $300 million from the state. In addition to this amount, the district said it will also receive less than 1% of $110 million in new state funding. Briley said the lack of funding from the state means the city will have to foot a larger portion of the budget.

“The state only allocated $587,000 to MNPS this year out of its total of more than $100 million in new money for schools,” the mayor’s office said in a statement to Community Impact Newspaper. “Mayor Briley believes it is on us as a city to support our teachers and staff moving forward.”

Finding the funds

In an attempt to generate more funds for teacher salaries and other Metro Nashville services, Metro Nashville Council members presented on June 18 four substitute operating budgets, three of which involved raising property taxes.

The substitute budgets, which included property tax increases ranging from 3.6% to 16.6%, all failed, resulting in the default approval of Briley’s budget.

“Mayor Briley believes that any property tax increase requires an open public dialogue with time for residents to ask questions and get answers,” according to the mayor’s office. “This conversation needs to include clear facts about why we need the increase and where the dollars would go. That is not what happened during the last budget process, where property tax increase proposals came in at the last minute without proper time for the public to weigh in.”

While some council members said they voted against the property tax hikes due to the lack of community engagement, other members said they already know where their constituents stand on raising property taxes.

“We’ve been talking about [property tax increases]for the last couple of years, so me and my constituents have had that conversation,” District 17 Council Member Colby Sledge said. “I know where most of them stand and what they feel is too much versus something that they could handle and support.”

Sledge, who voted in favor of the substitute budget that would have raised property taxes by 15.8%, or $0.498 per $100 of assessed value, said it is the Metro Nashville Council’s responsibility to begin addressing budget priorities in the fall, as opposed to waiting until the mayor’s office presents its proposed budget in the spring.

“I think the common thought process with [Metro Nashville Council] is to wait until the administration has their budget proposal out and then start those conversations, and we just can’t do that,” Sledge said. “We have to start having those conversations this fall, so that in the spring we’re not starting from square one.”

According to Sledge, his priorities include increasing teacher pay and providing additional funding to public transportation and other services.

“Teachers in my district are underpaid,” Sledge said. “They have been making it very clear that they need this support. These are teachers who have actually suffered pay cuts.”

In addition to not receiving a cost-of-living adjustment or a step increase in 2018-19, Shepherd said many MNPS employees took home a smaller paycheck due to an increase in insurance premiums. According to MNPS, there will not be an additional increase in premiums for the 2019-20 academic year.

“The [2018-19] fiscal year budget did not allow for any salary adjustments, but it did require an increase in insurance premiums,” Shepherd said. “The result was a net decrease in take-home pay for many of our employees.”

Teacher responses

During budget season, some MNPS teachers participated in public hearings and marches, and used sick days to protest what they believe are low pay levels.

“Our district lags behind many other districts in terms of our employee compensation strategy,” Shepherd said. “Peer districts have compensation strategies that allow teachers to quickly outpace MNPS teachers on the pay scale.”

According to MNPS, the starting salary in the district for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $44,663. In nearby districts, such as Williamson County and Rutherford County, teachers with a bachelor’s degree receive less than MNPS employees during their first few years but reach $50,000 per year in less time than MNPS employees.

Henson said that although MNPS is fairly competitive at the beginning of the teacher pay schedule compared to peer districts, the district needs to be more competitive through the mid-career and later years.

Amanda Kail, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, said she believes increasing teacher salaries will increase teacher retention.

“Low salaries give teachers little reason to stay in a stressful job,” Kail said. “New teachers get overwhelmed, look at the salary schedule and see it will take them 11 years to earn $50,000 with a master’s degree, and they leave. Enter new teacher and repeat.”

For now, Briley said he is working with MNPS Director of Schools Adrienne Battle as well as members of the board of education to address ways the two entities can work together on increasing teacher pay, finance and operations. Additionally, the MNEA board met in mid-August to develop a year-long campaign around increasing compensation.

“It’s a priority for us to win concrete teacher compensation,” Kail said. “This year we will be involving [MNEA members] as much as we can to make sure Metro Nashville Council and whoever is elected mayor know what a tremendous effort teachers make every day and the impact they have on this community. ”

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