March 2006

Term Limits Turmoil

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruling earlier this week has cast turmoil into the May elections for at least two counties — Shelby and Knox — with early voting set to begin on April 12. The short notice leaves election commissions unable to change the ballots in time, and just last night, State Elections Coordinator Brook Thompson opined that the incumbents cannot be removed from the ballot because the election is less than 40 days away (see the Commercial Appeal).

So, people could vote for the incumbents, but if elected, they could not serve. Instead, it would be up to the local political parties to select a candidate for the August general election (county commission seats are partisan in those two counties).

If there was no opponent from the other party, whomever was selected would be the de facto winner. I’m not comfortable with that at all; it would be better to re-open the filing and let the August election go to the highest vote-getter from any party. At least that way, it would be a representative of the voters, not the political machine.

While I’m not opposed to term limits, the situation in Knox Co., where two-thirds of the county commission have been deemed ineligible, leaves the probability of a very inexperienced commission… which shifts considerable power to other officeholders and local government staff.

It will be interesting, to say the least.

Elected Superintendents

One of the concerns going into this legislative session was another concerted push to allow for elected school Superintendents, rather than appointed Directors of Schools as is currently mandated. On Tuesday, the elected superintendents bill — HB3374 (Winningham) — was “taken off notice,” meaning it’s not scheduled for a vote.

It was not withdrawn, so it could come back, but the companion (SB2970, Burks) hasn’t been scheduled for a committee hearing yet either, and the session is moving toward closure.

The folks who support elected superintendents seek greater accountability to the public — so that he or she can be replaced at the will of the electorate. This group likely includes a fair number of county commissioners and county mayors, who would like for someone else to share the blame for tax increases needed to fund education.

The merits of an appointed Director of Schools are several. First, it facilitates a good working relationship between the elected school board (that sets policy and approves budgets), and the Director (who implements the Board’s policy and constructs the budget, which may be modified by the Board before approval). Secondly, it enables the school board to select a Director based upon the qualifications, experience, and skills needed for the job, not personal charisma and name recognition.

Further, it greatly broadens the pool of available talent. It’s not uncommon for school systems to search nationwide for the right candidate; depending on the size of the community, there may be few if any local residents who would truly meet the needs of the school system. Fewer still might be interested in having to run for office.

Lastly, it keeps politics out of the inner workings of schools — promoting a system based upon professionalism rather than political alliance.

While there are merits on both sides of the argument, the current system of appointing Directors of Schools is far better than the alternative. For a more detailed analysis, see the Tennessee School Boards Association’s position paper on this issue.

Voting in Memphis

Memphis has taken the first steps toward correcting the voter fraud problem from last Fall’s special election, as the Commercial Appeal reports:

The infamous North Memphis precinct where ballots were cast in the names of dead voters no longer exists.

The Shelby County Election Commission has dissolved Precinct 27-1, consolidating it with an adjoining precinct.

And all the 27-1 poll workers are barred from working future elections.

“On its face, someone committed an illegal voting act,” said commission Chairman Greg Duckett. “Until it’s resolved … we as a body felt it was important that no one affiliated with that ward and precinct works for the organization.”

Efforts continue in the State Senate to determine whether a 13th illegal ballot can be documented, which would give them grounds under a federal judge’s very specific guidelines to oust Ford’s sister, Ophelia Ford, from the seat.

In any case, the 104th General Assembly is nearing its close, and Memphians have the opportunity to choose again in November.

School Finance: another option

One of the drivers behind the move to a system-level fiscal capacity formula for determining levels of state education funding is the phenomenon of shared vs. unshared revenue. In short, counties must share all locally-derived education funds between all school systems in the county, where cities with municipal school systems may augment that funding from additional property or sales taxes, without sharing with the county.

Of course, this means that city residents are paying higher taxes in order to support funding their schools better; it also means that counties have no way to close the gap in per-pupil spending, since any increase on behalf of the county generates a proportional increase to any municipal system within the county as well.

SB888/HB1263 (McNally/Winningham) would provide a remedy to that problem, but one that is completely at the county commission’s discretion, by enabling counties to increase property taxes in areas outside municipal school districts, with the proceeds going only to the county school system. In short, it would give counties a source of unshared revenue just like cities have, enabling them to narrow or close the gap in local per-pupil funding.

Passage of this legislation would remove the purported justification for the mistreatment of municipal school systems in TACIR’s proposed system-level fiscal capacity formula, where higher taxes paid for education by city residents are counted as a measure of wealth (reducing state funding) rather than effort (which should increase state funding, but does not).

It would not fix the core problem, which is the State’s chronic underfunding of education generally. It would, however, provide local governments with a way to address the problem of disparity between city and county school funding at the local level. It would also cause TACIR to re-evaluate the formula for determining fiscal capacity, and eliminate the factors that penalize cities for doing what they should be doing — and what the State should encourage rather than punish.

It survived the Senate committee process last year, but never made it to a vote in the full Senate (although it’s still active, being the second year of a two-year session); this year, the House companion has been deferred twice in the State & Local Government Committee, now scheduled for a committee vote on April 4. Stay tuned.

Since it’s entirely permissive rather than mandatory, there’s no reason to oppose it.

No crash and burn…

Anotherthing2 wondered if my absence was due to trying the new FireFox Alpha, but no, I didn’t crash and burn. I haven’t gathered the courage to try the new version just yet.

Instead, I took my kids camping for a few days (brrr!) at Stone Mountain, and we had a lovely time at Six Flags. Even the last ride of the day, when we’d waited for an hour and a half to ride Superman – the Ultimate Flight and ended up stuck on the tracks when the ride broke down, was a welcome break of fun and relaxation.

Hanging upside down over the people waiting in the long line to ride, I held my camera out toward the ground, facing backward and to my left, to snap this picture of my girls and and a friend beside me.

No tie here to the matters of education and public policy normally discussed, except that everyone should take time to enjoy their children once in a while. They’re grown all too soon.

Firefox 2.0 Alpha

Not yet ready for primetime, but for the bravest open-source fans, TechCrunch is reporting the availability of FireFox 2.o Alpha.

I’m a big fan of the tabbed browsing introduced in 1.5, as well as the FireFTP extension. 1.5 does have a problem with memory leaks though… something I hope will be fixed with the upgrade.

I haven’t tried it yet, but if this page crashes and burns… you’ll know what I did.

Special School Districts

Tennessee has a number of “special school districts,” which differ from any other school district only in that the tax rate for education operations is set by the Legislature, by private act, according to the school board’s request. The result is that the county commission (or other local government) doesn’t have control of school funding; the other side of the coin is that school board members may incur greater blame for raising taxes (albeit indirectly).

For some years now, no new special school districts have been allowed to form. Legislation was introduced last year (HB1982/SB2062) that would allow existing school districts to convert to a special school district.

In counties that have been starved for funding by their county commissions — given only the amount required by law, which is not less than the year before — this bill would give relief and enable the school boards to make necessary budget improvements.

I wouldn’t advocate that Oak Ridge do so, but we have a much better working relationship with our City Council than most. Still, it could help many struggling school systems.

Although it passed the full Senate on May 11 of last year, it was amended as follows:

… any LEA in a county containing more than one (1) LEA with a total average daily membership (ADM) combined population that exceeds one hundred thousand (100,000), may convert to a special school district.

The only county in Tennessee with more than 100,000 students (average daily membership) is Shelby County. And they just happen to have two LEA’s (local education authorities, or school systems). Memphis City is already a special school district, so this bill was amended to apply only to Shelby County Schools. Who, incidentally, are not among the chronically underfunded.

The House version has not yet been amended, and is scheduled for subcommittee hearing tomorrow. I hope that they decline to amend it, and that the amendment can be dropped in conference committee.

I’ve long despised our Legislature’s practice of crafting generalized legislation then amending it to fit only a few; it’s always done is such a way that one has to look up population data to figure out who gets the benefit or the shaft. This case exemplifies the reason for my distrust.

BEP Resolutions

Opposition from local school boards to a proposed change in the BEP fiscal capacity model is growing, with a number of boards passing resolutions to that effect:

Maryville Daily Times, 3/10/2006:

The board passed a resolution that opposes a plan to change the basic education program funding formula that determines how much the state gives each local school system.

Dalton said the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) developed a model using 95 counties rather than the 136 school systems as a means for funding distribution.

The redistribution would cause the Maryville school system to lose $3.3 million annually, he said. The Association for Independent and Municipal School Systems is against the proposed changes, Dalton said.

The reason for the formula change is to bring equity to the poorer areas of the state and provide them with more money.

However, Dalton said he has studied the formula and that 14 out of the 15 richest counties would receive more money, and 14 out of the 15 poorest counties would lose money.

“We think there’s some pretty good reasons for opposing it,” Dalton said.

Oak Ridge, Cleveland, Kingsport and others have passed similar resolutions in recent weeks.

Student Fitness

Spurred on by national concern about growing childhood obesity rates, the Tennessee Legislature is responding with proposed legislation to mandate monitoring of the physical fitness curriculum, health policies, and nutrition programs of local public schools.

SB2494/HB2522 (Ketron/Baird) would also require public school students in grades K-6 to participate in 150 minutes of P.E. per week; and students in grades 6-8 to participate in 225 minutes of P.E. per week for the entire school year.

Kids need to be more active than they are, both for health and to “get their wiggles out” to improve learning in subjects that require more concentration. The Commercial Appeal has endorsed it; articles have also appeared in the Tennessean and Chattanoogan.

The only problem is this: the State continues to mandate what must be included in the school day, while taking nothing out. Further, there is no provision for funding additional facilities or instructional staff needed to carry out the mandate. It is, once again, a case of adding to the local burden while relieving nothing.

Extracurricular athletic opportunities abound, and parents should assume some responsibility for seeing to it that their children spend some portion of each day on physical activity. Of course, given the state of adults in this country, we shouldn’t wonder why children are following the unhealthy lifestyles of their role models.

Has anyone proposed a fitness regimen for legislators? How about benchmarking their diet and exercise habits first?

Not ’til it’s dead…

Yesterday’s notice that HB3180 was withdrawn from consideration was certainly good news, but I’ve said before that we can’t rest until this ill-conceived scheme is “dead, buried, with grass growing on top.”

Today’s article in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press about Sen. David Fowler’s decision not to seek a fourth term in the State Senate further hints that other efforts by proponents of the TACIR-inspired BEP reform may yet be pending this year… see paragraph six:

Currently he is working to change the state’s school-funding formula that local officials said discriminates against Hamilton County.

He hasn’t filed a bill this year to change it (the deadline has passed), and yet, he’s “currently working” to change it. One might interpret the hints to mean that either his bill from last year may be resurrected and amended, or that he may be planning to amend some other legislation to achieve the same thing — possibly one of the budget bills.

SB0272 (Fowler)/HB0615 (Brown, McCormick, Favors, Sharp) was filed last year and assigned to the Education committees in both houses… but nothing has occurred with these bills since April 11 of last year. The General Assembly runs on a two-year cycle, however, meaning that this bill could be resurrected through the end of the current session.

Unlike HB3180, Fowler’s version does not specify using the TACIR prototype system-level fiscal capacity model; it simply mandates moving to a system-level model by the 2006-2007 school year. Thus, it is not quite as bad, but there is no other model under consideration that I know of. The plain truth is that the fiscal capacity formula is so doggone complicated that very few people really understand it, and even fewer are able to devise a replacement.

Remember the old line about “lies, damn lies, and statistics?” It’s not quite that bad — math by itself does not lie. But choosing which variables to include in a formula that measures ability to pay leaves it open to bias, and the bias in the TACIR formula is based upon the inclusion of the amount that local governments DO allocate to education, but excluding what they COULD allocate.

More to follow shortly.

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