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Officials struggle with funding education mandates, hope to talk with state lawmakers

Gary B. Gray • May 11, 2012 at 9:21 PM

Should city and school officials get their wish, East Tennessee’s state legislators will come when called and sit and listen to the people who put them in office talk plainly and openly about how state mandates have increased burdens and emptied nest eggs.

Thursday’s roughly hour-long workshop aimed at getting the City Commission on the same page with Johnson City Schools about the coming 2013 budget was a friendly refresher on the numbers — and they didn’t look good.

Goals and objectives were outlined, revenues and expenses compared and immediate needs identified in the $62 million budget, which includes a list of needs totaling more than $5 million.

But it was when talk turned to state mandates that not only school officials but commissioners as well got a bit riled. There was no name calling or finger pointing — nothing personal. But the tone was not mellow by any means.

“The legislators keep pushing a mounting number of problems down to the local level,” said Vice Mayor Phil Carriger. “When’s the last time the city has brought them in to see the reality of the situation?” he asked City Manager Pete Peterson.

Peterson said he could not remember, but he did call the state’s current school funding system “broke.”

That spurred more talk about how legislators needed a reminder of who put them in office and who pays their salaries.

“I think the state legislature needs to come up with fewer rules, not more,” Superintendent Richard Bales responded when asked what could be done about the increasing amount of unfunded state mandates. “The school system is at the point where the next cuts will affect student achievement.”

The Tennessee Department of Education’s 2011 State Report Card showed that, once again, Johnson City Schools showed its progressive side by shining in virtually every category despite higher state standards. The school system also surpassed state goals at all grade levels on all non-academic indicators of success including attendance, promotion and graduation rate. In addition, the system’s graduation rate was 93.5 percent — well above the state goal of 90 percent.

Johnson City Schools continue to make positive progress even with the increased rigor and standards. But achieving some of these goals absolutely requires additional funding.

“One of the biggest mandates is the new teacher evaluation model,” said Kathy Hall, Board of Education chairwoman. “They must be evaluated at least four times a year, six if the teacher is non-tenured. So we’ve had to bring in retired administrators to help with the evaluations. It also is an extra load for principals who have to fill out the required paperwork.”

Another partially funded requirement is state mandated raises. The 2013 budget calls for a 2.5 percent raise at a total cost of $1 million. The state makes the requirement but pays in less than half, leaving school systems with the task of finding money to pay the rest.

On the heels of this expense comes state mandated “step” increases, which next fiscal year will cost $395,000.

It should be noted that Bales and the Board of Education have a track record of making every effort to pay teachers the highest salary possible. Administrators say this not only promotes a teachers’ stability but also draws more quality teachers to the system.

Meanwhile, much of the chatter at the workshop centered on how local officials believe legislators don’t understand that a statewide, blanket approach for standards, mandates and funding just does not work, especially if lawmakers’ focus is more on the heavily populated areas of the state.

“Johnson City is doing just fine,” Bales said.

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