funding battle

After three years, the fight to spend more money on Tennessee schools inches toward trial

PHOTO: Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean
Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman looks over evidence during a 2015 trial. The Nashville judge is presiding over a school funding lawsuit that pits Tennessee's two largest districts against the state.

A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is one step closer to trial after a Nashville judge turned back the state’s second attempt in three months to derail the case.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman last week stood by her decision from July to deny the state’s motion to dismiss the suit on constitutional and legal grounds.

Her rulings mean that the case — which the state’s attorneys say “has few rivals in terms of its breadth and its cost” — is on track to go to trial next spring in Nashville.

If successful, the lawsuit could force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which at almost $5 billion already takes the largest chunk out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation last year.

Tennessee is among more than a half dozen states where lawsuits are winding their way through the courts over the quality of schools, the adequacy of funding, and whether some students are being shortchanged, especially as states raise academic standards without always increasing funding for resources and training to help students meet those benchmarks.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee has been an exception by adding $1.5 billion to the K-12 pot during his eight-year administration. But attorneys for Memphis and Nashville schools say the investment falls woefully short and that Tennessee isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide its children with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”

Both legal teams are lining up expert witnesses, whose testimony will provide the meat of the case. They already have filed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and are scheduled to take depositions this fall.

“This case has been pending for over three years with the ultimate goal of getting to trial to make a ruling, and we are closer now than ever,” said attorney Charles Grant, who represents both districts through the Tennessee firm of Baker Donelson.

Tennessee still could appeal to a state court in an effort to sidestep Bonnyman’s rulings, but that would be highly unusual. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Herbert Slattery said Tuesday that the state is evaluating its options under Tennessee law.

The question of adequate school funding is different from one posed by several previous landmark cases in the 1980s and ‘90s that focused on whether Tennessee was funding schools equitably. This litigation is about the size of the funding pie, not just how it’s carved up.

In documents, the state called the adequacy argument “extraordinary” since the court is being asked, in essence, to order the Legislature to boost its spending on schools, which would “require either raising taxes or redirecting existing revenue from other state services, or possibly both.”

"We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education."Lori Patterson, attorney

Tennessee’s two earlier funding cases ended up at the State Supreme Court and forced the state to change its funding formula so that smaller and rural school systems now receive a greater share of money than they previously were getting.

If the current legal battle mirrors those cases, litigation likely will drag on for years through trial and appeals and end up again in the state’s highest court.

A trial itself could take weeks and even months. A recent trial over the adequacy of school funding in New Mexico consumed two months in court. Another trial on an adequacy claim in Connecticut lasted five months.

The decision by Nashville’s school board to join in the Memphis lawsuit slowed the process but also made the plaintiffs’ case stronger, said Lori Patterson, another attorney representing the school systems.

“They’re joining together to say education is not adequately funded from a constitutional standpoint,” she said. “We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education.”

Theirs is not the only funding lawsuit pending in Chancery Court. Months before Shelby County Schools went to court, Hamilton County’s school board and six other districts in southeast Tennessee filed their own suit asking the court to order the Legislature to address a funding formula that they say leaves schools chronically underfunded. That case appears to have stalled, however, and representatives for the state and Hamilton County Schools had no comment on its status.

You can follow our coverage of this topic here.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

As Indiana’s teacher pay debate heats up, some lawmakers say schools spend too much outside the classroom

PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School.

Facing a tight budget year and widespread calls for teacher pay raises, some Indiana politicians are questioning whether school districts are spending too little of the funding that they already receive in the classroom and too much on administration.

The lawmakers point to statistics from the Office of Management and Budget showing that 57 percent of the $11.9 billion state dollars schools spent in 2016 were used in the classroom. And a report using data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows personnel hiring across the country has dramatically outpaced enrollment, with non-teacher hiring dwarfing that of full-time teachers.

“While the number of teachers and students in our public schools have essentially flatlined, administration and non-teaching staff have ballooned,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, told fellow lawmakers in November.

But school districts — eager to receive more money for teacher pay increases that will make them competitive with neighboring states — are pushing back on the characterization that they aren’t using funding as efficiently or responsibly as possible. Trimming administrative payroll alone won’t be enough to raise money for higher teacher salaries.

“When people make broad brush stroke comments about funding, it’s easy to take a shot at administrators,” said Flora Reichanadter, superintendent of Pike Township schools. “There’s this misconception … that (districts) just kind of squandered their money, which is an absolutely inaccurate statement.”

But just figuring out how much of what Indiana spends on schools directly affects students is a complicated endeavor — and figuring out what share goes solely to teachers is even harder. We know that in 2015, the most recent year available, 38 percent of Indiana’s K-12 staff members were full-time teachers. But Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, said Indiana can’t isolate teacher salaries and benefits from those of other licensed educators in order to see how much schools and districts spend on them alone.

“Part of our discussion has been trying to isolate those numbers and trying to figure out exactly what that is,” Behning said. “We’ve had difficulty getting data … The fact that teacher by definition is not just a classroom instructor, but could be a librarian or any number of things.”

During last month’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, Bosma said lawmakers and education advocates, including the state teachers unions, were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget — mirroring efforts underway to raise teacher pay across the nation. Gov. Eric Holcomb said he also plans to address teacher compensation — in the short- and long-term — though it’s not yet clear whether that means any action in 2019.

But numerous interests are fighting for limited state budget dollars this year, so lawmakers are scrutinizing how existing state funds are being spent by school districts.

“I think we need to have an open discussion about how do we have efficiencies and drive dollars to the classroom,” Behning said. “There’s no question there are things we can do … how do we do more to streamline the operations of the system?”

As an example of cost savings, Behning said that many districts, some of them small and rural, have their own bus depots and maintenance teams — services that could be combined with other districts or cities and towns to reduce spending.

A 2017 report from EdChoice, a national pro-school choice organization based in Indianapolis, criticized school districts for increasing spending on non-teaching staff instead of using the dollars on teacher salaries. Marty Lueken, director of fiscal policy and analysis for EdChoice, questions whether that has helped students.

“Whenever I hear someone say that schools are struggling with large classes, or need more resources for schools or classrooms, or teachers should be paid more, I think about these hiring practices,” he added. “We could have had those other things, like smaller classes or higher take-home pay for teachers, if district leaders made different personnel decisions.”

But only looking at staffing and comparing spending on full-time teachers and to spending on non-teacher leaves a lot out of the picture, said Dennis Costerison, executive director for the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. On its face, that comparison underestimates what schools spend on other adults, such as counselors and principals, who work directly with students, and part-time instructors, who are often cheaper and easier to hire than full-time educators.

“Administrator,” too, is a finicky term, Costerison said. Sometimes, the term includes department heads, who might also be full-time teachers.

Money not spent on teacher salaries also funds resources necessary to ensuring clean and safe schools, such as custodians, accountants, human resources staff, and school safety officers.

Reichanadter, who previously led Franklin Township schools, said school funding has not kept pace with the cost of living, and even if it had, cutting administrative positions isn’t enough to add up to teacher raises.

“There’s only so much you can cut,” she said. “There’s only one of me. There’s 500 teachers. Divide my salary up between 500 teachers and we’re talking about maybe a cup of coffee.”

Administrators, she cautions, also do work that otherwise would fall to principals or teachers, who should be spending their time in the classroom or guiding instructions, she said, not doing payroll or buying supplies. And while some administrative work seems far removed from student learning, the tasks add up to an environment and a system where learning can be the priority, she said. Plus, she added, some non-teaching roles have naturally increased as schools have added services for vulnerable students, such as nurses, occupational therapists, and interpreters.

“It’s ludicrous for some of the legislators to conclude that we didn’t pay attention to this,” Reichanadter said. “I have to be a really good steward of my resources because if I don’t and I don’t compete with my local area, then I’m going to lose teachers and have a lot of turnaround … and that affects learning.”

Costerison added that a portion of a district’s non-teaching costs are the result of mandates made by the very legislature that is critiquing school spending, such as requirements around school safety, testing, and teacher training.

“Whenever bills are passed and laws are enacted, some of them do have repercussions from the standpoint of additional staffing and additional responsibilities for administrators and teachers,” Costerison said.

The state’s most recent 2016 report on classroom spending from the Office of Management and Budget estimates about 57 percent of state dollars go to the classroom — a figure that includes teacher and principal salaries, dollars spent on materials and textbooks, and pay for counselors and similar staff. But that percentage not spent on classrooms includes funding that state law currently says can’t be spent on instruction, Costerison said.

Those off-limits categories include money for building maintenance and debt service — money that, until changes in the state laws about district budgeting take effect next year, couldn’t go toward teacher salaries even if districts wanted.

Lawmakers will have a tough time come January deciding which funding asks to prioritize in the face of shrinking state revenue and several urgent competing issues, including the need to better fund the Department of Child Services.

“When you look at the revenue that exists, the funding, quite frankly, isn’t there at the moment,” said Sen. Jeff Raatz, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The reality is that we have some significant hurdles we have to overcome to get where we need to go.”

negotiations

The Denver district has offered to raise teacher pay. Will it be enough to avert a strike?

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
A Denver teacher rallies support for increased teacher pay in front of the school district headquarters in September 2018.

Most Denver teachers would get raises under a new salary structure proposed by the school district Wednesday night. The proposal would boost the salary for first-year teachers by nearly 8 percent to $45,000 annually.

The current contract between the district and the teachers union expires Jan. 18, and the union has threatened to strike if an agreement is not reached.

While union leaders said the district’s proposal is “moving in the right direction,” they said it still falls short. For one, they said it wouldn’t give teachers enough of a salary boost for furthering their own education by taking classes toward earning advanced degrees.

“You’re listening,” Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the union bargaining team, told district negotiators. “I will say that. We still need you to listen further.”

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating for the past year against a backdrop of widespread protests over teacher pay. The two sides are not negotiating the main teacher contract. Rather, they are negotiating the contract that governs the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp.

Negotiations have been heated, in part because of a state law that requires the district and the union to bargain in public where teachers can watch. Wednesday’s session was no exception. At the end, Gould pointed to a red and white button he had pinned to his union T-shirt.

“This button says, ‘Ask me why I am ready to strike,’” Gould said, as a chorus of teachers “mmmhmmm”-ed in the audience. “I’m ready to strike because I’m sick and tired of teacher salaries paying for other things. And you need to prioritize teachers.”

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable. It pays teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position.

The sole finalist for the district’s open superintendent job, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, has said repeatedly the district should invest more in teachers’ base pay.

District officials said their proposal would simplify the system. It would also increase by $11 million the amount of money Denver Public Schools spends out of its $1 billion budget on teacher pay. The $11 million would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to the central office, said Debbie Hearty, head of human resources for the district.

However, the proposal does not give the teachers union what it really wants: the opportunity for veteran teachers to earn $100,000. The union has proposed its own salary schedule that would pay a teacher with 20 years of positive evaluations and a doctorate a base salary of $100,000.

Under the district’s proposal, a teacher with a doctorate and 20 years of positive evaluations would earn a base salary of $85,750.

The union’s proposal would cost a lot more than $11 million, maybe even three times as much. But union leaders said the district could come up with the money if it prioritized paying teachers over other things, such as calculating school ratings they think are flawed.

The district’s proposal gets close to a $100,000 salary but not all the way. The highest it goes is a base salary of $90,750. That would be for a teacher with 30 years of positive evaluations and a doctorate or a combination of advanced degrees, certifications, and longevity.

The district is proposing that teachers who have worked for the district 15 years be bumped up on the salary schedule as a way to honor retention — a proposal Hearty called “bold.”

The two sides do agree on where the salary schedule should start: $45,000 for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Currently, first-year teachers earn a base salary of $41,689.

A $45,000 starting salary would be higher than in the surrounding metro districts, including Jeffco, Aurora, and Cherry Creek, but still lower than the well compensated Boulder Valley School District, according to a chart prepared by Denver Public Schools.

The district and the union also disagree on the size of the bonuses and incentives. The union favors larger base salaries and smaller incentives, with some as small as $1,000. The district has proposed offering an extra $2,500 to teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, high-poverty schools, or other schools deemed “highest priority” by criteria not yet set.

About 75 percent of the district’s roughly 5,000 teachers would earn at least one of the $2,500 incentives, and about 25 percent would earn two, according to the district’s calculations.

The district can’t get rid of the incentives altogether because of the way they’re funded. In 2005, Denver voters passed a tax increase to fund ProComp. The ballot language was specific about how the tax revenue would be used, including to pay teachers for things like working in hard-to-fill positions, increasing their teaching skills, and earning positive evaluations.

Giving up the incentives would also mean giving up the tax money, which district officials project will be $33 million next year.

The district and the union are next scheduled to meet Jan. 8, which will give them just 10 days to come up with a deal before the current contract expires and a strike vote looms. The union has been holding community meetings this week to explain to parents and community members why a strike is a possibility. The union has three more such meetings scheduled next week.