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Board members, representatives discuss concerns on vouchers and resource officers

Jennifer Sprouse • Feb 3, 2013 at 11:28 AM

Members of the Board of Education, principals and school officials with Johnson City School System met with three state legislators Saturday morning to discuss two items — vouchers and school safety.

Reps. Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss, along with Sen. Rusty Crowe, met with school officials at the Columbus Powell Center at 9 a.m. to let board members and others present at the meeting voice their concerns over new proposals made by Gov. Bill Haslam during his State of the State address on Monday.

Formally known as the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act, the proposal would allow all eligible students –– students eligible for free or reduced lunch and those attending a school that is in the bottom 5 percent in academic achievement –– the opportunity to receive a scholarship to attend a private school of their choice.

For top-ranking school systems like the Johnson City School System, vouchers aren’t appealing and Board of Education members say the proposal is unnecessary.

“We oppose and we’ve gone on record as opposing them just because we feel that public tax dollars should not be used to fun private schools,” Kathy Hall, board chairwoman said. “It’s certainly not necessary and in fact would probably hurt our school system and other school systems and ... we need to understand that private schools aren’t held to the same standards we are. They aren’t tested as we are, they don’t have the same evaluation systems for their teachers and they aren’t obligated to accept every student as we are.

“To me ... our state constitution says we need to supply a free public education and if we’re using money for a private education, you’re taking taxpayer money away from what we’re mandated to do,” Hall said.

Hill, who requested the meeting, said Saturday that he had been discussing the voucher proposal with a coalition group, saying that from what he’s seen from his district, the voucher system would not apply, and, like Hall said, would actually be detrimental.

Hill said that each school system will in some way have to back up their opposition to vouchers with facts and figures as well.

“I think being able to statistically prove that this is not going to help anybody in the Johnson City School System is extremely important,” he said. “We don’t qualify. We just don’t qualify, but we have to be able to prove that because on the House side, Micah and I need that. There’s a lot of questions, there’s a lot of details and ... I feel like from my perspective, there has to be definitive evidence and proof that my district’s going to be positively impacted or at the very least held harmless.”

Superintendent Richard Bales told the legislators that a topic he wants information about is how the schools that have already been participating in an achievement school district, which is supposed to move the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee into the top 25 percent within five years, are doing and the success they’ve had so far.

“Right now ... I cannot tell them if they are going to be harmed or not, because we have to get answers to their questions, answers to my questions and we just have not had those answers yet,” Hill said.

Funding for school resource officers also was addressed Saturday. Hill said the has already introduced the Safe Schools Act of 2013, which he hopes if nothing else is a catalyst for safety proposals in schools.

The city school system already implements SROs and has six in place in its schools.

A concern that has been brought up numerous times at Board of Education meetings has been the impending loss of funding for two elementary school SROs. Their funding is provided by a federal grant — The Heroes Grant.

“We’d like to increase our SROs, not decrease that number, but making sure that ... we look at school safety as a whole and don’t pin it on just one thing,” Hall said.

She said safety equipment such as cameras and other surveillance devices have increased safety efforts in the school system, but said while they value SROs and would like to have an SRO in every school in the city, she said upcoming legislation shouldn’t limit the view of what school safety includes.

Bales and Hall, as well as other board members and school principals discussed the importance of having SROs in schools, as well as the other procedures they follow when dealing with mental health concerns in children.

Hill said he left his bill open ended so that other ideas relating to school safety or new implementations that would serve a better use could be added to provide the best plan of action regarding the safety of schoolchildren.

“We just want to make sure that there is participation by the state in the funding and the local government, that the local government’s not having to fund 100 percent of it, which my bill addresses that,” he said. “I think that we are at the very first step of a long journey when it comes to this piece of legislation. I don’t care who gets the credit for it, if it’s not all encompassing in my bill. As long as we can make our schools safer and as long as we are not passing the costs 100 percent to the locals, then I’m happy.”

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