BEP Backlash

Is Tennessee’s school funding system broken? Local officials increasingly say ‘yes’

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County budget director Mike Swift studies information presented by leaders of Shelby County Schools during a budget hearing on July 5.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell says it’s time to rethink the cost of K-12 education — in Memphis, and likely in Tennessee as well.

Fresh from reviewing the latest funding allocations to Shelby County Schools, Luttrell points out what the state is paying, what the county is obligated to pay, and what the county actually pays to operate the state’s largest public school district.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell

It’s the $52 million gap between what the county is obligated to pay and what the county actually pays that worries him, especially given the state’s stagnant allocations and the county’s increasing contributions, often to pay for state-mandated education reforms.

“We’re giving a lot of money to education that’s over and above — that we shouldn’t have to,” Luttrell said. “[That figure] also tells us that the state is not meeting their full contribution.”

Luttrell’s conclusion is one that’s being reached by more and more local government officials across Tennessee amid tension over perennial requests from local school leaders for more funding.

Historically, the local government receives notice of the state’s education allocation, as well as the local education obligation, under the state funding formula known as Basic Education Plan, or BEP. School district leaders then go before the local government funding bodies, typically asking for more local money to cover their increasing costs, and get grilled over their spending priorities, before the final funding amount — and local property tax rate — is set.

But increasingly, in the midst of often heated discussions between local government and school leaders, officials are looking up from their spreadsheets and wondering aloud whether the funding system they’re working under might be broken, or at the very least outdated.

“The argument used to be how we divied up the pie,” said Wesley Robertson, a budget and finance consultant for county governments across the state. “Now they’re saying the pie is not big enough.”

Breaking down the BEP

Created in 1992 in an attempt to provide a fair and equitable allocation of state education funding between urban and rural districts, the state’s BEP is designed to provide a basic level of education for all Tennessee students, no matter what their school district. The formula uses 45 ratios based on factors such as what a typical class size should be and how much an administrator should be paid.

The BEP was last updated in 2007 — five years before Tennessee launched sweeping education changes under the federal Race to the Top initiative. Critics charge that the formula now low-balls the cost of education, with allocations that have not kept pace with inflation, on-the-ground enrollment challenges, a growing charter school industry and new mandates to improve the state’s worst-performing schools — efforts that require extra staff and expensive intervention programs.

While Tennessee taxpayers spend around $6 billion a year on education — which should be split about 50-50 between state and local revenue — around $4 billion currently is being paid by local governments, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

The additional local expense has evolved due to several factors — the bulk of which stems from a misalignment between what the state deems an average class size and the local realities of staffing schools. Fluctuating student populations often force officials to scramble at the last minute to avoid overcrowding, but BEP doesn’t factor in the need for extra teachers.

In addition, BEP formulates an annual teacher salary at $40,000, but the average teacher salary across the state last year was $50,000. In Shelby County, a first-year teacher makes $42,000, with the average salary at $60,000.

Meanwhile, a growing charter sector is siphoning off thousands of students from Shelby County Schools, which results in decreased BEP revenue for the district but not a decrease in fixed costs such as loan payments for buildings, utilities or administrators’ salaries.

In Shelby County, county government now contributes more than $391 million a year to education through Shelby County Schools and six suburban municipal school systems. That’s $52 million more than they’re obligated to pay under the BEP, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

Against that funding reality, the Shelby County Commission signed off earlier this month on its 2015-16 spending plan — without a tax increase — after numerous budget hearings in which leaders of Shelby County Schools asked for $15 million more to pay for new student computers and additional literacy coaches, among other things. They got close to $8 million more, but not before commissioners questioned the district’s spending priorities and suggested where the extra money should go.

“We need to bring prudence to Shelby County Schools, as we do for Shelby County government,” budget committee chairwoman Heidi Shafer told school leaders during a two-hour hearing in May.

"What incentive does the state have to fully fund the BEP if we keep picking up their slack?"David Reaves, Shelby County Commissioner

District leaders countered that they’re already there. The Shelby County Board of Education cut $125 million before approving a $1 billion budget this spring, laying off more than 500 employees, closing several schools and tapping into its savings account to stave off more cuts. During the last two years, the district has made $275 million in cuts.

District leaders complained to commissioners that they’re working off a spending plan that the state is woefully underfunding based on a formula that they say grossly underestimates the “true cost” of education. If the state paid its full obligation under the BEP, the district would receive an extra $100 million annually, according to board member Chris Caldwell.

“What incentive does the state have to fully fund the BEP if we keep picking up their slack?” asked commissioner David Reaves during one budget hearing in May. “We need to create a climate where there’s a burning need [for the state to fulfill its obligation].”

“If you want to get off the hot seat,” an exasperated Caldwell told commissioners, “you should go to the state and tell them to give us our due amount.”

Picking a battle

Shelby County isn’t an outlier. School leaders for all three of the state’s other largest districts—in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — asked their local funding bodies for additional money as well this spring.

The biggest request—for a 40-cent tax increase to generate an additional $34 million for schools—was hashed out in Chattanooga through Hamilton County Schools. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger rejected the proposal, forcing Superintendent Rick Smith to go back to the drawing board and reduce a proposed teacher pay increase from 5 to 2 percent.

Meanwhile, across the state, local governments are picking up $1 billion more than they’re obligated to under the state’s BEP formula, and district and local government leaders are increasingly shifting the focus of their frustrations to Nashville and the state Capitol, where the state distributes education funding based on the BEP.

“(Districts and local governments) can’t get anything done locally and they want to fight,” said Robertson, who represents county governments across the state. “Our message is, ‘You need to be on the same team. Come together and turn your attention toward the state.'”

In March, that’s exactly what boards for seven school districts in southeast Tennessee did. Led by the Hamilton County Board of Education in Chattanooga, the districts filed a lawsuit charging that the state has created a system that “shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in substantially unequal educational opportunities across the State.” But unlike three prior lawsuits alleging built-in inequities in the formula, Hamilton’s lawsuit focuses on inadequacy and argues that the formula fails to “account for the true cost of educating students in Tennessee.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his 2015 State of the State address, in which he advocated the state not stray from his standards review process.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his 2015 State of the State address.

The state is urging dismissal, arguing that the legislature has leeway in funding K-12 education. And Gov. Bill Haslam, who this year championed a $147 million increase in education spending across Tennessee to address BEP funding and increase teacher salaries, has repeatedly urged district leaders to engage the state in conversation instead of litigation.

“The reality is we’re making dramatic improvements in education,” Haslam said in April after lawmakers wrapped up their legislative session. “I challenge you to go around and look at any other state and see what they’re doing in terms of improving funding for education, and I’ll take Tennessee.”

Before recessing for the year, lawmakers considered a bill that would have required the state to fully fund the BEP, but the measure was tabled and never reached a committee vote. The bill is scheduled for discussion Thursday as a House education panel convenes its summer study session.

Shelby County school leaders aren’t waiting around for state lawmakers to act.

Shortly after passing its leaner budget, the district’s Board of Education voted to hire an attorney to explore suing the state over its level of funding. District leaders elsewhere in the state, including in Nashville and Knoxville, have explored similar action, though no additional lawsuits have been filed.

Caldwell has led the charge to take the state to court in Memphis, arguing that neither Haslam nor any individual legislator can guarantee anything to local school districts.

“We’re 45th in per-pupil spending in the country, and it’s beyond the time for empty promises. These kids don’t get these years back,” he said.

A looming new baseline

Luttrell is watching all of these moving parts with interest with the knowledge that Shelby County government is in a unique position to reset the cost of education in Memphis, despite whether the state eventually increases state education funding or tweaks the BEP further.

While Tennessee law prohibits reductions in local education funding from one year to the next, Shelby County government can choose to lower its contribution by 2017. That’s because state law allows an exception to local governments due to significant operational changes such as, in Shelby County’s case, the merger of the city and county school systems in 2013 and the break-off a year later of six suburban municipalities that created their own school systems.

Luttrell says he’ll be watching closely how Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson manages his education budget and whether he makes more cuts, noting that the district operates dozens of under-enrolled schools. He’ll also be looking to see how the district reduces its worrisome liability for retiree benefits.

“We’ve got three years to ask the tough questions of education,” Luttrell said. “I’d like to be comfortable that we’ve done our due dilligence, and we collectively agree what should be our new baseline.”

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.