Legislative Breakfast

State Sen. Steve Southerland (R-1) and Rep. David Hawk (R-5) meet Friday with Greeneville City Schools leaders including school board members and administrators.

State education funding and laws related to compulsory school attendance were among Greeneville City Schools leaders’ concerns they discussed Friday with state legislators.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville and Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown attended the district’s annual legislative breakfast to hear the school system’s positions on these and more issues at the start of the 2022 Tennessee General Assembly session.

The district’s list of concerns also included state testing data used to set goals, the Literacy Success Act, required use of textbooks and other materials, transportation funding, truancy laws, School Resource Officer (SRO) grant funding and teacher salaries.

STATE EDUCATION FUNDING

With the review of the state’s funding formula for public schools currently underway, the school system’s priorities for the new formula being developed was the first issue covered by Director of Schools Steve Starnes.

“The BEP was implemented in 1992, and it has been litigated many times over the years as we continue to tinker with it and look at whether it is current and relevant and what we need to be able to fund public education today,” said Starnes.

The BEP, or Basic Education Program, allocates funding to school systems based on enrollment and attendance and will remain in place until a new formula is approved by the state legislature.

Starnes has been directly involved with the review process as chair of one of 18 subcommittees formed by the state to consider different aspects of education. Starnes is leading the school personnel subcommittee.

He said a new funding formula to be driven by student need, one of the aims state officials have said the review is intended to address, is among top priorities for Greeneville City Schools as the new formula is developed.

Starnes said the last changes made to the BEP happened in 2016 with the Enhancement Act, and some of what was changed then had negative impacts.

“Back in 2016 the definition for economically disadvantaged was changed at the federal level, and Tennessee adopted that definition,” Starnes said. “Prior to 2016 all students who qualified for free and reduced lunch qualified as economically disadvantaged, but when the definition switched, those families had to be receiving benefits such as food stamps to qualify.”

Starnes said with that change, the percentage of students in the district considered economically disadvantaged dropped, and the district lost funding because of that.

“When you reclassify that definition you are overlooking a lot of the working poor, who have the same challenges as other kids as they enter school,” Starnes said. “I think it is really important to come up with a good definition there that meets the needs of Tennessee, not just the government.”

Starnes also said he hopes the formula that will ultimately replace the BEP will include the review committee’s recommendations for nurses, school counselors, emotional support and intervention and technology.

The flexibility built into the BEP, fiscal capacity as determined in 2016 and the Maintenance of Effort, which keeps local revenues separate from state and federal funds, were aspects of the current formula that Starnes said he would like to see continue.

“The flexibility of the BEP is one of the good things about it. It is a formula, not a spending plan,” he said.

Increasing teacher salaries and benefits funded by the state, ensuring no school system would receive less state funding than they do currently, funding for facilities and deferred maintenance and support for pre-K education were among other priorities Starnes discussed, as well as ensuring that any state level requirements for schools are funded by the state and that public tax dollars only fund public schools.

Hawk said removing unfunded mandates, or state requirements for schools that the state does not provide funding for schools to fulfill, could mean less local control.

“Unfunded mandates are always an issue, and as we have these conversations, we want to make sure that state dollars follow anything the state requires,” he said. “We want to give local governments and school boards as much control as possible to peg those dollars where they need to go, but the conundrum we’ve got — and it’s something I am trying to wrap my mind around, as well — is that if we’re going to get rid of all unfunded mandates, it could mean less local autonomy.”

Chief Financial Officer Ellen Lipe discussed a request that funding for full-time School Resource Officers (SROs) in each school building be included in the new funding model; Chief Human Resources Officer Melissa Batson discussed the district’s position that state funding for teacher salaries be increased in an effort to address the teacher shortage seen nationwide; and Assistant Director for Administration Beverly Miller requested that the formula include funding for all students who ride school buses. Currently students not transported on a specially equipped bus who live less than a mile and a half from their school are not funded to ride the bus, she said.

A draft overview of a possible new education funding formula was released this week by the state for public review. More information about the review process and the draft document can be viewed at www.tn.gov/education/tnedufunding.html .

Feedback may be emailed to tnedu.funding@tn.gov by noon on Tuesday.

COMPULSORY ATTENDANCE REQUIREMENTS

Under current laws, students are required to attend school until they turn 18, but Chief Student Services Officer Jeff Townsley told legislators Greeneville City Schools would like them to support legislation to require students to attend for four years to retain students who might otherwise drop out of school at 18.

“We don’t have a tremendous number of students who drop out, but it does happen,” Townsley said. “The attendance rate statewide even before COVID was under 90%.”

He said the district is in support of legislation that would remove age-related requirements and simply require students to complete four years of high school.

“We support considering changing the law so that when students enter as a freshman, they are required to complete four years of high school regardless of when their birthday is,” Townsley said.

Hawk noted that the bill would need to allow for students who are ahead of their grade level to graduate early if they meet the requirements.

“As we know, some students can get done with high school before four years, so we would probably have to put some wording in not to harm those students who get done early and want to go on,” Hawk said. “We could say four years or the completion of needed credits to earn their degree.”

Hawk said any new bills must be filed by Feb. 2 and that the issue could likely be discussed in the coming weeks “at least conceptually.”

Townsley also discussed truancy laws, where there is currently a tiered system in the district. As students accumulate absences, they move through the tiers and at Tier 3, those students’ guardians must attend a truancy board hearing.

“Over half of students who reach the third tier of our plan have been there before,” Townsley said. “The law requires those tiers to reset the following year, so what happens is they go back to Tier 1.”

He said this leads to a cycle in some cases.

“Each year they go back through the tiers, and there may not be any court action — they just miss 30 days of school without really a penalty, so we would request that something be added to this to allow us to move a bit more swift the following year with students that have been in the third tier before,” Townsley said.

OTHER CONCERNS

Other requests and concerns district leaders brought up with Hawk and Southerland on Friday morning were:

  • For school systems to be allowed to use state TN Ready assessment data from 2020-21, which school systems were held harmless for in terms of accountability measures and the data not published as typical due to the pandemic, to set goals for the 2021-22 school year.
  • To amend the Literacy Success Act, Assistant Director for Instruction Dr. Suzanne Bryant said would hold too many students back in third grade next year if it is allowed to take effect in the 2022-23 school year as written. She said third grade is the first opportunity for students to take a standardized test, and as it is written, it would result in 72% of third-graders statewide having to repeat the grade. Bryant asked that the law be amended to only apply to students performing below the 50th percentile.
  • For districts and qualified teaching personnel to be allowed more control over instructional materials used.

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