PHOTO: Tim Stillings, chairman of the Franklin Special School District, asks the commission to support the resolution. / Photo courtesy of Williamson County government
By ALEXANDER WILLIS
Residents of Franklin filled the Williamson County Administrative Complex Monday night, all hoping that the County Commission might vote in favor of resolution 3-19-2, a resolution that would allot millions to the Franklin Special School District (FSSD) over three years to amend a misunderstanding in a past sales tax increase referendum.
The resolution would see funds come from both the Williamson County general fund as well as the city of Franklin, splitting an estimated $800,000 a year to go towards the FSSD.
In early 2018, residents of Williamson County voted overwhelmingly to increase the sales tax of the county by .5 percent, with the understanding that the increase would go to fund the development of new schools. The question is now, which schools was the referendum talking about?
Before the referendum passed, County Mayor Rogers Anderson managed to convince six municipalities in Williamson County to forgo the revenue that would be earned from the .5 increase in sales tax for three years, with that money all going towards soley the construction of new schools and school additions. The sales tax increase is projected to bring in an additional $69 million over the three year period, which again, would strictly be used for the constructions of new schools and additions.
Currently, all sales tax generated in the county is split 50/50, with half going towards schools, and the other half going towards the respective municipality in which the sales tax was generated from. The funds going towards schools are split even further, with 92 percent going towards Williamson County Schools, and eight percent going towards FSSD.
Many Franklin residents had assumed, based on promotional material for the referendum as well as its wording, that when the cities forwent the additional revenue generated from the sales tax increase, that the money going towards schools would be split in an identical fashion as they had been before – 92/8. That turned out not to be the case, however, leaving many Franklin residents feeling as if they had been mislead, and perhaps, would not have supported the sales tax increase to begin with.
Chairman of the FSSD Tim Stillings spoke during the commission meeting, calling the referendum confusion a case of “classic miscommunication and misunderstanding,” and asked the commission to vote in favor of the resolution.
“The Franklin Special School District is a major component in this stellar county educational system, and we have capital needs as well, and we budgeted based on receiving those funds,” Stillings said. “This is a good solution, it’s a good solution for every district in the county. This resolution relies on the principals of trust, cooperation, fairness, and complete transparency, and I’m thankful that you, as a commission, are full partners in keeping the educational system of Williamson County strong, and I respectfully ask for your vote yes on resolution 3-19 – 2.”
Sandra Bissinger, a resident of Franklin for more than 35 years, said her vote for the tax increase was also under the assumption that both school districts would reap the benefits.
“When my husband and I read this resolution for the tax increase, it was an instant yes to us,” Bissinger said. “We understood that it would benefit all the children of Williamson County in both school districts. I am a director of facilities of a very large church in Brentwood; I know what it takes to build a building, I know what it takes to upgrade and improve a facility – it takes a lot of money. That was one of the reasons why we were a definite yes on this tax increase so that all of our students will reap the benefit of what these dollars will do in their schools.”
Franklin resident Jennifer Morrison, a mother of a FSSD student, also said the referendum had been misrepresented to the voting public, and that the higher percentage of impoverished families attending schools in FSSD made the issue even more critical to be rectified.
“My understanding, as well as many others, was that the money from the sales tax would be shared proportionally based on the ADA (average daily attendance) of the students attending each district, that was how it was presented to us,” Morrison said. “I do think it’s irresponsible of us not to consider the greater proportion of children that live in poverty in the FSSD district. It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that any distribution solely based on headcount is not actually fair at all when you consider the larger proportion of students living in the FSSD that live in poverty. The percentage of children that are on free and reduced lunch in Williamson County is around 11 percent – in the FSSD, it’s around closer to 40 percent, so three to four out of every ten children.”
Kristen Letsinger, a 4th grade math teacher at Poplar Grove Elementary in FSSD, also argued that the current limitations at FSSD schools is already hurting its student population, and that they deserve their fair share of the extra funds.
“You’ve heard many reasons why you should say yes tonight, you’ve heard many numbers about this, and probably looked at them as you’ve been studying them tonight,” Letsinger said. “As a math teacher, I could stand up here and tell you some more numbers. I could tell you that 50 percent of my kids come from Spanish-speaking households, and about one third are English language learners.”
Letsinger continued by sharing how classes of students have been unable to use a school’s gym at times because it was being used by other students, or that the district’s theater program was still in need of improvements.
“Tonight is not about the numbers, tonight is not about the facts – tonight is about the 3,800 stories that those numbers represent, so tonight I respectfully ask for you to consider that those 3,800 stories deserve equal access to the funds we’re talking about tonight.”
Following the public comment portion of the meetings, Commissioner Brian Beathard opened the discussion with why he was in favor of supporting the resolution.
“This resolution seeks to remedy what, in a lot of individuals minds, is a misalignment of assumptions, and I happen to think both assumptions are correct,” Beathard said. “If this does end up being $400,000 – probably be somewhere between $280,000 and $400,000 per year – we’ll get that back. We’ll get that back with every child that goes into Williamson County Schools and graduates, and helps build on the success that this board has represented for many decades. In Williamson County, our schools are our oceanfront property, and this resolution asks you to not only help the children for their future, but help the children for our future.”
Commissioners Beth Lothers and Barb Stergeon argued in favor of deferring the resolution, saying more time to study where exactly the money that would go towards FSSD would actually come from.
A motion to defer the resolution was made, then failed, causing an uproar of applause from the audience, all anxious to have this matter settled.
As the discussion continued, multiple commissions spoke on why they support the resolution, commissions such as Steve Smith, Robbie Beal, Matt Williams and Sean Aiello, among others.
Commissioner Judy Herbert, was not one of them. Herbert argued that the FSSD was already seeing millions of dollars over the years poured into supporting them, money that other municipalities should not be obligated to pay.
“In 2013, the county chose to put SROs (school resource officers) in all the elementary schools, which cost a lot of money,” Herbert said. “We also chose for the safety of the Franklin city children to put SROs in their schools; that is a cost of $680,000 to the county that they’re not responsible for, it is really the responsibility of the Franklin Special School District and the city of Franklin Police Department to provide those, not us, so I feel like we have been more than generous. I feel like this is kind of pushing it, I mean, should we still cover the SROs? The city of Franklin should be covering those.”
Some commissioners were still unclear as to where specifically the money would come from that would go to FSSD, if the resolution were passed. Mayor Anderson stepped up to the podium to clarify.
“We cannot change the sales tax rate, all we can do is find a pot of money in which to draw this money out of, and that money that you draw out of, if it comes out of county general, that’s the collective money of everyone in the county,” Anderson said. “You all have to make the decision yourselves of where to gift give, call it whatever you want, you have to make that decision and then you tell me and I’ll go to work.”
Commissioner Paul Webb was also not in favor of supporting the resolution. Webb argued that other municipalities have budget needs, and should not be obligated to cover a school district miles away.
“I’m representing the Brentwood Folks, and they’re strong advocates of public education, but they have revenue issues as well,” Webb said. “They have to pay for parks, fire and police. So they’ve given up $3.5 million a year in favor of public schools, $3.5 million over three years, $10.5 million that they could have used for paving streets, buying fire trucks, providing the library, you name it. This $300,000 – $400,000 we’re talking about coming out of the general fund is paid by everyone in the county, including Brentwood.”
“Brentwood pays about a quarter of the total taxes for the county, so let’s say they’re going to give up [about] $100,000 a year,” Webb continued. “Maybe not much, but when you give up that money, that means that [they] have got to find a way to cut in the parks, the sheriff who provides the SROs and all the law enforcement in the county, find a place to cut. This is money that every county service will not have, and all of us know how tight the money is in the county budget. Brentwood’s given enough, so I’ll vote no.”
Commissioner Elizabeth Hester also spoke against the resolution, arguing that the initial intent of the sales tax increase was mainly to help manage the county’s “out of this world” debt.
“Our debt is out of this world,” Hester said. “It’s very high, that is what this whole situation and this tax is for: paying for our school debt within the county, which the Franklin Special School District contributes to. I don’t want to take any money away from Franklin Special School District, but we have got to pay down our school debt.”
After the discussions had finished, the commission cast their votes on the resolution. In a vote of 9 – 13, the resolution failed to pass.
Also set to be voted on by the Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen Tuesday night, the item was taken off of the agenda in lieu of the commission’s vote.