By EMILY R. WEST
With only four days until members of the General Assembly convene, Rep. Charles Sargent has two bills that could change the face of funding education.
The Franklin Republican – who heads the House finance committee – has been an advocate in the past for changing how Tennessee allocates its dollars to school districts.
Tennessee uses a formula called the Basic Education Program, which divvies up money that takes into account the number of students and other factors, including a district’s ability to pay. That formula has been adjusted several times since its emergence in the 1990s. It originally was designed to help more rural counties.
Last year, he helped Williamson County earn back millions it could have potentially lost.
Now, Sargent has a plan that looks ahead three years, rather than adjust funding with a BandAid solution that only helps once.
“This is what I want to prevent,” he said. “And school districts that are looking at a lawsuit against the state over inadequate funding would be the ones I would help the most. I would not hurt any district in the state. It has no bearing on anyone losing any money what so ever.”
In his first bill, Sargent said breaking down the figures and math with the BEP formula is simply complicated. But essentially, what he wants to accomplish is making sure districts receive their fair share of money.
New money would go into the BEP formula, and would provide a baseline for what the state has to provide per district. School districts should receive 80 percent of the average funding per pupil. Williamson gets around $3,300 from the state, meaning local taxes and some federal money make up the rest of the money to ensure $8,945 spent per student.
“We got more money this year and our budgets are coming in a lot stronger in previous years,” Sargent said. “This will help the counties, like in Williamson, prevent a property tax increase and the same thing for the other counties across the state.”
That would mean Williamson County Schools would receive $3.8 million in additional funding every year, totaling $11 million in three years. That equates to a three percent increase per year, Sargent said. Franklin Special School District would receive around $700,000 in additional funding each year. In contrast to Williamson, FSSD spends more money per pupil, but it also has fewer students in the district. Franklin Special provides $13,984 per student.
Ultimately, he hopes it will sway districts to drop lawsuits against the state. Those who have sued have claimed inadequate funding.
Sargent said his second bill is a little bit less complex. Simply, he said he wanted the state to pay for growth entirely for districts. Right now, it only pays a partial percentage. And for districts that growing quickly like Williamson, it could be a game changer. The district grew last year by 1,800 students. In the next five years, that number will expand to 10,000 new students in WCS.
“At the present time this last year, we funded anything over 1.4 percent growth,” Sargent said. “So if your district grew 2.4 percent, we paid for one percent of the at increase. But really, we need to fully fund all growth.”
Gov. Bill Haslam took a stab at that last year, adding more money to the growth component of funding. Of the $19 million he allocated, Williamson County Schools took $6 million.
“If I can accomplish this, Dr. [Mike] Looney and Mayor Rogers Anderson, they won’t have to fight every year,” Sargent said. “They can fund the schools correctly. It’s always a scramble. Just throwing a bandage on it won’t stop it.”
How Columbia State fits in the picture
Legislators have 15 bills they can file per session. With two of those already dedicated to BEP funding, Sargent has another bill that could help Williamson’s community college campus.
While leaders joked at its opening over the summer about a fourth building, one could come into the picture sooner than expected. Last year, the state set aside $500,000 for design plans for a fourth building.
Columbia State Community College opened up its brand new campus off of Liberty Pike in July, with three buildings and hundreds of parking spaces. When it first opened its doors, the school anticipated about 1,300 students attending. That number has steadily risen to nearly 1,900 students enrolled.
Looking at the numbers, Sargent said he’s already wanting to get ahead, knowing that Tennessee Promise will only fuel enrollment at places like Columbia State.
The thing is – if you go over to Columbia State – our students are staying on the campus like a four-year campus,” Sargent said. “Dr. Smith has done an excellent job on student retention and create a campus for students to feel like they are in a four-year college.”
Lending a hand to TDOT
Though not entirely education focused, Sargent also has his sights on amending one small procedure that could give the Tennessee Department of Transportation $12 million back in road funding.
Right now, the state charges TDOT for its handling of the gasoline tax. Currently, the state relies heavily on it. The tax charged at the pump hasn’t changed since 1989.
But the state charging TDOT to handle it? Legislators could very well eliminate that protocol.
As it sits right now, there is $6.1 billion worth of backlogged projects across 62 counties. In Williamson, there are seven.
The state would have to spend $5.3 billion for the new project needs, which include state routes and local bridges. Together these projects span across 59 counties, and Williamson County has 16 of those needs. Between backlogged and new, Williamson County would need $457 million to complete road and bridge projects.
“That puts $12 million back in their budget,” Sargent said. “It could be a Franklin or Hillsboro Road or whatever road project. That money could go to a type of project like that. These things aren’t going to get done unless we put money toward them.”
A nod to fire and police employees
Classified as more of a special project this session, Sargent said his respect for emergency personnel is what will lead him to file this piece of legislation.
Sargent said that police and firemen received a $600 supplement from the state each year. Wanting to expand that, he would like to see that figure doubled.
“It’s been at $600 for years,” Sargent said. “I am looking at a way to fund and bring it up from $600 to $1,200 or at least $900.”
The Tennessee General Assembly will convene for the first time in 2017 on Jan. 10 at noon. All bills will have to go through committees before they voted on by the full house.