wish list

McQueen wants teacher pay to go up and local costs to go down for Tennessee’s student intervention program

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens to budget presentations from his department chiefs this week at the State Capitol.

As Gov. Bill Haslam prepares the final budget of his administration, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is asking to increase teacher pay for a third straight year.

She also wants the state to finally help school districts pay for Tennessee’s required but unfunded intervention program aimed at keeping struggling students from falling through the cracks.

McQueen presented her wish list to the governor during budget hearings Tuesday at the State Capitol.

Tennessee is projecting a slowdown in the growth of tax revenue next fiscal year — about $350 million compared to $1 billion this year — but Haslam says that investing in teacher pay continues to be a priority of his two-term administration.

“We want to continue to fund teacher salaries the best we can,” he said following Tuesday’s budget presentations.

McQueen offered up $73 million in specific requests, the bulk of which would cover growth and inflationary costs associated with the state’s funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.  The list also includes $10 million for school improvement grants for “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, another $6 million to help charter schools pay for facilities for a second year in a row, and almost $4.5 million for the state’s reading initiative in its third year.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Candice McQueen

But she did not attach dollar amounts for her big-ticket requests like teacher pay and the unfunded program known as Response to Instruction and Intervention, or RTI. She told reporters later that her department will pound out those important details with Haslam’s administration during the months ahead before the governor presents his final spending proposal to lawmakers in February.

Citing a $450 million increase in state allocations for teacher salaries in the last three years, McQueen said “we’re going to continue to commit to (raising pay).”

“Certainly, this is a tighter budget year than we had last year, so we have to look at the big picture around compensation before we can give an exact amount,” she told Chalkbeat.

Tennessee launched RTI in elementary schools in 2014 as a way to identify individual students’ learning needs early and then to offer additional supports. Now entering its fourth year, the program is in middle and high schools too, but still without additional state money to pay for it.

That’s been a source of frustration for districts that have had to shift existing resources to pay for the state’s mandate. Sometimes, for instance, they’ve cut classroom teacher positions in order to hire RTI specialists.

The program has been cited in several funding lawsuits against the state by districts in Memphis and Chattanooga, but McQueen told reporters that her request is based on research, not litigation.

“We have come to the conclusion that RTI has been very effective, both in helping us with special needs identification … but also ensuring that our kids are getting what they need based on their individual needs,” McQueen said of a study released last year. “… We wanted to come forth (with funding) based on that full review.”

The study reported that the program’s impact on student growth has varied considerably from school to school and can only be effective if implemented correctly.

The commissioner also asked for money to train social studies teachers on new standards that will reach Tennessee classrooms in the fall of 2019. In addition, she wants funding to launch a new leadership initiative to train and equip principals, especially for the state’s highest-needs schools.

“While teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor in moving student achievement, we know that principals are the second,” she told Haslam. “Teachers follow effective principals. They want to work for effective principals.”

Haslam told reporters later that McQueen’s leadership initiative is a strategic investment that he believes is smart. “With all the discussion around education reform, I’m convinced that having the right leader in the building makes more difference than anything,” he said.

This fiscal year, more than $6 billion of Tennessee’s $37 billion budget went to K-12 education, about 96 percent of which was distributed directly to districts. About $5 billion of that is generated from state and local taxes, with the balance coming from the federal government.

School Finance

Big blow to Indianapolis Public Schools’ bid for tax increase: Realtors aren’t sold

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A politically influential group representing real estate agents is taking the rare step of opposing Indianapolis Public Schools’ $725 million proposal to raise property taxes to increase school funding.

The opposition deals a harsh blow to the referendums, which have faced criticism and received little public support — driving the district to downsize the request earlier this week.

“Most importantly, we are concerned that property owners have not been given enough detail or clarity on the individual impact,” said the statement from the MIBOR Realtor Association. “The recent change to the proposed dollar amount only elicits more concern with IPS moving forward with their short timeline.”

The association opposes the request because it would be burdensome for Indianapolis residents, CEO Shelley Specchio said. She also criticized the district for not providing clear enough information on how the tax increase would impact individual property owners and how it would be used in schools.

“It was a difficult decision — not something that we took lightly, because of course, we really value strong quality schools,” Specchio said. But “we felt that the tax increase would be burdensome to homeowners.”

The district did not immediately return a request for comment.

The real estate agents group has about 8,000 members in Central Indiana. It has been one of the largest local contributors to campaigns for seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools board, giving thousands of dollars in recent years to support at least four of the current board members.

This is the first time the group has opposed an appeal for more money from a school district, said Chris Pryor, vice president of government and community relations. It has not taken a position on any Marion County school funding referendums, he said. But it has supported raising taxes for schools in other places, such as Anderson, and donated money to the campaigns.

Other influential groups, such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, have not yet taken positions on the referendums. Many community leaders agree that the district needs more funding, but they have raised concerns about the size of the request.

The opposition from the real estate industry group is a significant blow for the district because there has been virtually no campaign in support of the measures so far, said Ed Delaney, a Democratic state representative who lives in the district. The association is the first civic organization to take a position.

“I’m sorry that an organization like that, which has shown an interest in our community, would feel that they had to take this position,” Delaney said. “I’m saddened that we’ve come to this.”

Just two days ago, the school board responded to community concern by cutting its request from nearly $1 billion to about $725 million over eight years in a bid to win political support. The two measures, which will go before voters in May, would raise money for expenses such as teacher pay, special education services, and building improvements.

If the referendums pass, the tax increase for homeowners would be $0.58 per $100 of assessed value. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $23.24 per month.

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.