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 Finance

Teacher raises would survive $211 million cut from Indianapolis Public Schools funding request

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis’ largest school district cut about $211 million Tuesday from its request for extra funding, in a bid to win public support for the proposal.

That lower price tag comes with tradeoffs, district officials said. Even if voters approve the new plan, the district would dip into its cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans, such as additional busing for students who move partway through the school year.

The new request also reduces how much the district would raise to pay for services for students with disabilities, though it was initially unclear by how much and how that could affect students.

But district officials said they still expected to be able to give raises to teachers if the referendums pass.

The scaled-back request would raise about $725 million over eight years, significantly less than the initial proposal of nearly $1 billion.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of reducing the amount of money the district is seeking, backing off the number members approved two months ago.

Board member Kelly Bentley said many school districts around the state have asked taxpayers for more money.

“We all own property in IPS. None of us want to see our taxes go up,” she said. But, she added, “I am confident that it’s money that’s going to be well spent, and it’s money that is necessary.”

Instead of pulling back spending on teachers and school staff, the district is making the new plan work by adjusting revenue expectations, said Chief Financial Manager Weston Young. The proposal is built on the assumption that state revenue will increase 1 percent each year, and the district will no longer hold as much money in reserves, he said.

“We are still committed to our students through our compensation for teachers and the wraparound services that serve those kids,” Young said.

Reducing the request could help build enthusiasm for the tax increase, which has not gotten much vocal community support. Instead, the referendums have been met with some concern over the size of the ask. But even though they have pared down their plan, district leaders will still need to persuade voters in May to raise their own taxes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new plan is a balancing act between what taxpayers can bear and the cost of providing the level of service that families need. Ultimately, he said, the tax increase would pay dividends by helping the district prepare students for college and careers.

“This is one of those situations where you pay now or you pay later,” he said.

The move cut the potential tax increase for homeowners in IPS to $0.58 per $100 of assessed value, down from the initial proposal of $0.73. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $17.70 per month for operating expenses and $5.54 per month for building improvements, according to the district.

The referendum the board reduced would pay for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, and under the new request, it would raise about $66 million per year for eight years. That’s down from the initial request of about $92 million per year.

Under the new plan, about $49 million of the money raised each year would go to staff pay, while the remaining $17 million would help pay for services and supplies, regular maintenance, and transportation.

A second measure, which was not changed, would pay for about $200 million in improvements to buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security. Both measures are expected to go before voters in May.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.