BEP Review: to bat, or to battle?

The BEP Review Committee meets on Wednesday morning in Nashville; I’ll be there. Although I’m not on the committee and have no direct vote, sometimes just being there can make a difference. Like any other public body, knowing that someone is interested and watching can impact what they say and do.

The BEP is Tennessee’s mechanism for directing State funding to public school systems. The “equalization formula” referenced in the link above is actually the Fiscal Capacity Formula, developed by Harry Green of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR). Simply put, it’s Tennessee’s formula for providing more state funding to school systems with less local resources, and less to those with more local resources. At this time, fiscal capacity is measured at the County level, which means that all the school systems in Anderson County (Anderson County, Clinton, and Oak Ridge) receive the same number of dollars per pupil from the State.

For a couple of years now, there’s been a push to change the formula so that the larger cities get a bigger share. They do receive less state funding per pupil under the formula, because they have much larger tax bases. In particular, they have very large sales tax bases funded in significant part by residents of surrounding areas, so that’s why they receive less. At the same time, those large cities argue that they have a harder-to-educate population (higher percentages of poor and minority students, as well as those who don’t speak English well); they feel that changing to a system-level fiscal capacity formula would be better, since all the big cities have consolidated school systems, whereas many of the municipal school systems are just outside their borders, and therefore compete for teachers, etc.

Two years ago, the Legislature directed the BEP Review Committee to move toward a “system level fiscal capacity model,” and they attempted to do so last year. The problem is that the new formula developed by TACIR (see David v. Goliath from last February) would have caused great harm to more than half the school systems in the state. Bills to move immediately to the system-level model were defeated in the Legislature last Spring, but the BEP reauthorization resolutions passed late in the year (HR0286/SR0120) directs the BEP Review Committee to develop a consensus recommendation on a system level fiscal capacity model.

Unfortunately, consensus will be difficult — maybe impossible — to achieve if the method is to simply rearrange distribution of already inadequate funding.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the first agenda item pertains to things like “phase-in” and “hold harmless” — in other words, a painstaking death to the losers in the TACIR prototype system-level fiscal capacity formula.

The second item will be a report from the Peabody Center for Education Policy, with an alternative system-level reform model (short-term objective) as well as a “21st Century Education Finance System” (long-term objective). This item is key — has someone come up with a better, more fair system-level formula?

There’s no way to know, except to go and listen to the presentation firsthand. So I shall. And no, fraud-and-waste watchdogs, your tax dollars are not paying for the trip… I am.

There’s been considerable local focus over the City’s decision to not fund the requested amount for Oak Ridge Schools in this year’s budget, which led to painful cuts — the most obvious being a decrease in bus service. However, the City Manager, Vice-Mayor Tom Beehan, and the City’s lobbyist, Bill Nolan, have worked closely with me (and our Superintendent, and the rest of the Board) over the past two years to monitor the State’s actions and proposals to prevent passage of reforms that would be harmful to our school system through reduced or limited state funding.

Be very clear: although there was and is disagreement over the City’s budget allocation this year, we are on the same team.

Look for a review of this meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 30. I hope I have good news.

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