The Hamilton County School Board will hold a “working session” Thursday afternoon as steps continue to formulate the FY2019 budget and it is a frightening process in a badly-broken system. Everybody knows it is equally embarrassing and after watching teachers who “have had enough” go on strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky this spring, I guarantee you that Tennessee is a powder keg just waiting on a match.
Using 2016 figures, the average teacher salary in Tennessee was roughly $48,456 that year. (The national average in 2016 was considerably higher: $58,955.) Tennessee’s average was $40,318 in 2003 and $46,209 in 2007 so it may seem like a slight rise but it’s not. The average person can’t see the real picture because only until you adjust the salaries for inflation, the 2003 number becomes $52,413 and the 2009 average was $51,843 so by 2016 – there we were – sitting at $48,456.
So what has really happened as inflation has never stopped? Tennessee public school teachers have had their pay cut by 7.6 percent in the past 15 years. If you take the national average and adjust for inflation, the nation’s teachers have just seen about a three percent cut but the gruesome fact is that between 2009 and 2016, teachers in Tennessee have suffered a 6.5 percent pay cut.
Tennessee is in the “bottom 10” of the United States when it comes to education. Hamilton County is the same way when compared to metro districts in the state. And as we learn the Tennessee teacher salaries are double the national average in inflation-driven pay cuts, is it any wonder our efforts in public education are hardly promising?
When County Mayor Jim Coppinger and the County Commission studied the county budget last year, the public schools got a measly 1.9 percent increase, this with $325 million in deferred maintenance virtually ignored. The commission accepted a plan to hold millage rates constant, which turned into a godsend bond issue of roughly $325 million but that cannot occur this year.
You also will not see a county tax increase for the 13th straight year; courage go blind in an election year so when the state withholds even more money from education in its FY2019 budget, the public schools are clearly on a road to nowhere. The reason is there is no money.
This is where the school board needs to get involved. We could give each of the nine board members a proposed budget with the directive to slice out the fat to afford $4 million in school resource officers. They would promptly come up with nine completely different versions. Superintendent Bryan Johnson has raised some eyebrows with his early spending habits and the central office is still taking a beating due to its repeated poor decisions. (An unauthorized $113,000 for some knee-reflex security gizmo?)
The county is trying to pitch the SRO expense to communities within the county but (1) each village is cash thin, and (2) that’s what county taxes are for. The public has no patience left for elected officials who “pass the buck” and, when people become elected, they should take a personal vow to tackle the toughest monsters in any given day first.
The challenge is clear: the school board has to hold the Department of Education accountable. Hamilton County schools are the worst they have ever been. I have a strong belief in Supt. Johnson and his team but today, right now, when the ‘Super’ calls “Hamilton County the fastest improving district in the state” the guy can’t back it up. One reason is because, personally, I’ve never seen the School Board say “no” to anything the Department of Education wants to do.
Never has leadership and direction from the school board been as crucial because – trust me – this is a worsening crisis. You’ll see ….
* * *
FOR WHATEVER IT’S WORTH – In a recent press release from the Hamilton County Department of Education, there was this paragraph: “To make sure we prepare children for success in high school, Future Ready Preps in Hamilton County Schools will help students SPRINT to personalized success. The acronym SPRINT stands for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education, Professional learning, Rich learning experiences, Individualized learning, a Nurturing environment for students, and access to Technology.”
Where do people who think like this come from?