Budget plan

Haslam proposes teacher pay hike for third straight year in Tennessee

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam prepares to deliver his 2018 State of the State address Monday evening during a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville. It was Haslam's final address to lawmakers and kicked off his last year as governor.

Tennessee public schools would get an additional $212 million, including funding for increasing teacher pay for the third straight year, under Gov. Bill Haslam’s final proposed budget released on Monday.  

Of the increase proposed for K-12 education, Haslam wants $55 million to go to teacher pay hikes. If approved, it would bring the total increased funding for teachers salaries to $500 million during his eight-year administration.

He also proposed to help districts pay for a state-mandated but unfunded intervention program for struggling students, as well as smaller amounts for programs to promote literacy and develop school principals.

The outgoing Republican governor announced the investments in his last State of the State address as he touted the growth of Tennessee students in math, English, and science on national tests, as well as a record-high graduation rate for high-schoolers. He implored the state to continue accountability-based education reforms of the last decade that he credited for the improvements.

“Together we have made the right calls, the tough calls, on the policies we’ve pursued,” Haslam said of raising academic standards, developing a test to measure those standards, and tying teacher evaluations to test results.

“… We have not compromised. And I’m asking you to stand with me to ensure that we don’t back up now. Not now. Not this year. Not next year. Not ever.”

The $37.5 billion overall budget plan was conservative but friendly to K-12 education considering that it anticipates only slightly higher revenues than last year. Haslam said his work this year will be grounded in three priorities: education, jobs, and government efficiency. 

Higher education initiatives would receive almost $100 million in additional money. To help students complete college on time, Haslam also wants to restructure the Tennessee Promise scholarship for community college and the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, which is merit-based.

For K-12, Haslam asked for $13.3 million annually to help school districts pay for the state’s required intervention program aimed at keeping struggling students from falling through the cracks. Known as Response to Instruction and Intervention, or RTI, the program is in its fourth year but has never had state money to prop it up.

Haslam wants another $10 million for school improvement grants for “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent in academic performance, $6 million to help charter schools pay for facilities for a second year in a row, $4.5 million for the state’s reading initiative in its third year, and  $1.75 million to help build and strengthen the state’s principal pipeline.

In a statement later, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen noted that K-12 education would receive the lion’s share of new funding under Haslam’s proposal.

PHOTO: TN.gov

The governor’s budget builds on our priority areas and what we know works, particularly in helping our youngest students learn to read, in ensuring every school is led by an excellent principal, and in funding for grants for our highest need schools,” McQueen said.

Now the budget goes to lawmakers for revisions and approval before the legislative session ends this spring. If Haslam’s K-12 proposal stands, education spending will have increased by $1.5 billion during his administration.

The proposed pay boost for teachers was welcome news for educators, but not all of the money would likely reach their paychecks. That’s because local districts have discretion on how to invest state funding in instructional needs if they already pay their teachers the state’s average weighted salary of $45,038.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the state’s average weighted salary for teachers.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.