In order to evaluate why the School Board needs and is asking for additional funding, it is important to understand how school funding works in Fayette County.
State law requires the County Commission to fund the school system with at least the same amount of money as it did for the previous year. In other words, the Commission cannot reduce funding to schools to make up for shortfalls in the county’s budget.
The school system’s two big sources of funds from the Commission are property taxes and sales tax. These sources plus a few minor ones, such as marriage license fees and mixed drink taxes, make up the county’s Maintenance of Effort.
Everyone, possibly including some Commissioners, thinks that the wheel tax we’re paying is all going to pay for the new school. That is not true.
The previous school administration asked the Commission for an outrageous $18 million to build a new 1,000-student school. Comparable schools in Shelby County were being built for much less. Of course, the Commission said “no” to this request. In May 2011 the School Board and the Commission arrived at a mediated agreement for a 600-student school to cost a maximum of $10.5 million with the Commission committing to pay the first $8 million and the School Board paying the remaining $2.5 million out of its budget at a cost of $171,000 each year.
When the State calculates the next year’s funding for the school system, it also assesses the required local (county) share of the funding. This local share is based, in part, on the county’s “ability to pay” according to property values and sales tax revenue.
In addition to the Maintenance of Effort paid by the Commission, state law allows the money spent on new schools by the Commission to be counted as part of the local share. As a result, the schools will not receive any additional funding despite the increased local share.
When the old high school was buried in 1987 to avoid paying for properly and legally disposing of asbestos materials, some citizens and some Commissioners were well aware of what was done. No one alerted the School Board that the site selected for the new school was contaminated.
What the School Board wants to give our teachers next year is a 13.31% raise to bring them up to the current salary level of Tipton County’s teachers. This increase will cost $1,839,200 for salaries, benefits and taxes.
A 4% raise for teachers will cost $552,728 in salaries, benefits and taxes. But that is much more than the funding Fayette County Schools will receive from the State for the 4% raise.
Whenever the State gives teachers “a raise” and the Board agrees to match the State’s percentage increase, over half of the financial burden comes out of our budget from that year forward. Very seldom is even a small portion of that burden funded by the County Commission. Thus, most, if not all, has to come out of the same fixed amount the Commission gives the school system year after year.
Last year, the Board gave teachers a 1% raise with no help from the Commission.
For the 2012-13 school year, Governor Haslam provided extra funds for teachers. Since there was no guarantee that funding would continue every year forward, the governor’s contribution was paid out equally to all teachers as a one-time bonus.
State funding, called BEP (Basic Education Program with the emphasis on BASIC), uses a complicated formula with 45 components to calculate the staffing and other resources that qualify for state funding in a school district. Staffing requirements are based on student average daily membership for the previous year. The calculated staffing numbers fall below the actual staff positions in school districts throughout the state. No school system operates at the unrealistically low levels established by the State.
Oakland area County Commissioners Homer Bunker and Terry Leggett lead charge against Fayette County Schools budget. Both commissioners gave lengthy speeches opposing Fayette County Schools request for $2.4 million increase in funding from county. The Education Committee and Budget Committee of the County Commission voted unanimously to reject the school budget request for more funds, but to fund the schools at the same dollar amount as last year. Their exact vote was to fund schools at Maintenance of Effort, which is the minimum required by Tennessee law. Commissioner Myles Wilson (not representing the Oakland area) stated that teaching school is not rocket science. He added that all we need is average teachers in Fayette County.
The schools requested the extra funds to accomplish three things:
1. Increase teacher salaries to a competitive level
2. Provide after-school tutoring and summer school at all schools
3. Improve academic offerings at Fayette-Ware High School
Citizens, if you are in favor the schools budget and plans, you need to voice this to the County Commissioners. (via phone call, text and/or email)
This week the Fayette County School Board took its responsibility to public education seriously and asked the County Commission to support our schools with a $2.4 million increase in funding primarily to bring our teachers’ salaries up to a respectable level.
Why Funds Are Needed
Most citizens and County Commissioners are unaware that our teachers are not only paid less than all surrounding school districts but are actually rock bottom in the entire state. In the 2013-2014 report on average salaries from the TN Dept of Education, Fayette County ranks at the very bottom out of 136 school districts for educator salaries with all licensed educators and instructional personnel dead last, classroom teachers fourth from the bottom, and principals second from the bottom.
The single most effective tool for delivering a good education to our county’s children is the teacher in the classroom. With the lowest salaries in the state, Fayette County Schools simply cannot compete in the marketplace with Shelby County, the new city school districts, or Tipton County. We cannot attract experienced, high performing teachers. And we cannot even keep teachers who come to us fresh out of school to get their training at our expense then move on to better paying jobs.
To be sure, we have good, dedicated teachers who do stay with Fayette County Schools at considerable financial sacrifice because they live here and/or prefer working in our school system. But teachers have families to support and bills to pay just like the rest of us. They have to invest their work efforts where they can get a reasonable economic return.
What is the Price Tag?
In County Mayor Taylor’s draft budget, he reported that the total assessed value of property in the county is $952,331,191 and that 1 cent in the property tax rate brings in $95,223 in revenue.
Based on the mayor’s figures, the $2,380,646 funding request from the School Board would require an increase of 25 cents in the property tax rate. In other words, a 15.6% increase. If your property tax for last year was $500, then you would pay an additional $78 this year.
Property Tax Analysis
Fayette County has not had a property tax increase in at least two decades. Although the rate has been adjusted periodically, this is done in order to bring in the same tax revenue when the tax base is reassessed and consequently rises or falls.
According to the 2014 property tax rates reported by the TN Division of Property Assessments, Fayette County has next to the lowest rate of all counties. Only Cumberland County, where Crossville is located, slides in under our $1.6054 rate at $1.4975. (Note: Gibson County has a rate of $0.9334 but also has special school district taxes throughout which put its effective tax rate over $3.)
The 2014 tax rates for us and neighboring counties are: Fayette $1.6054, Hardeman $2.5500. Haywood $2.3956, Tipton $2.4169, Shelby $4.3700. An increase of 25 cents for education will put our tax rate at $1.8554 - still significantly lower than all our neighbors.
In fact, it would take an additional 54 cents to bring our teacher salaries up to Shelby County levels. That would put our tax rate at $2.1454 and still leave us well below surrounding counties.
Ability to Pay
Other educational funding sources look at various statistics to determine a school district’s ability to pay its own way.
Federal funding takes median household income into consideration. As reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in its 2006-2010 American Community Survey, Fayette County has the third highest median household income in TN at $56,729. Only Williamson County at $87,832 and Wilson County at $60,678 surpass us. Our high median income means we qualify for less federal funding.
State funding through the Basic Education Program (BEP) uses an equalization formula to determine the state and local shares of the funding amount calculated under BEP. The equalization formula is driven primarily by property values and sales tax. The county’s rising property values and increasing sales tax revenue indicate Fayette County has the ability to pay a larger share of education costs and is entitled to less state funding.
What these indicators are telling our school system’s other funding sources is “Fayette County has the ability to pay for more of its education costs and does not need as much from outside sources.”
Of course, the willingness to pay is an entirely separate issue and the one we must deal with.
“No tax increase” is the proverbial campaign platform for County Commissioners and essentially Fayette County’s claim to fame.
No one wants to pay higher property taxes. NO ONE. Not the School Board, not parents, and certainly not County Commissioners. And we most definitely do not want to get on a path toward ever-increasing taxes every year for no good reason.
But, when we look realistically at how Fayette County measures up, we really have nothing to brag about. Having the next lowest property tax rate in the state coupled with the lowest paid teachers in the state is an embarrassment, not something to be proud of. It speaks volumes about the value we place on our children, on nurturing a well-educated citizenry, on providing a safe wholesome community.
In April Mayor Taylor advised the County Commission that a tax increase may be necessary to fund more jailers and deputies. If we invested more in education, we would create more productive citizens and fewer prospective inmates who will keep costing us both as taxpayers and as victims of crimes. It makes much better sense to invest in positive outcomes.
What does our bottom-of-the-barrel standing say to businesses who are looking for a solid community in which to locate? For years we have been told that we do not have a trained work force. We never will unless we take steps to make that happen.
Businesses also want good public schools for the children of their employees. Rock bottom teacher salaries say Fayette County has no interest in meeting that requirement.
Investing in our school system will be a big step toward putting our county on the map for attracting businesses and creating economic opportunities for all our citizens.
Think Long and Hard
We taxpayers need to think long and hard about this. Do we want Fayette County to continue coming in last in the state or can we spare a few dollars to invest in a brighter future?
For those of us who think it’s time to step up and support education, we need to speak loud and clear to our County Commissioners so they know where we stand.
The Fayette County School Board is asking the County Commission to step up and support public education with $2.4 million in additional funding.
These new dollars will bring our teacher salaries up from the absolute lowest in Tennessee to the level of Tipton County teachers as well as restore after-school tutoring and summer school programs at all schools. In addition, the new funding will provide educational enhancements at Fayette-Ware High School with three more foreign language teachers for a full four-year program, an additional ACT teacher, a specially trained teacher to work with gifted students, fully functional science labs, and 10 technology labs.
Since September 2012 the School Board has worked very hard with the school administration to reduce costs and staffing where appropriate and to optimize operations. All of this has been done on a fixed income from the County Commission. With the fiscal house now in good working order, it is time to invest in teachers and educational programs if Fayette County's children are to be given the quality education they deserve and that prospective businesses expect to find in communities they consider moving to.
Please review the resolution that the Board has presented to the County Commission with the budget request and STAND UP with the Board for our teachers and students by contacting your Commissioners. It is now up to parents and citizens to make this happen.