According to Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, the county receives about $1,100 less per student in funding compared to Johnson City Schools, a gap he says is continuing to grow.
During Monday’s meeting, Eldridge asked Washington County commissioners to join his crusade in finding a solution that balances the scales.
“The constitution is completely clear on this. The constitution says that the state and local government have a constitutional responsibility to provide a substantially equal educational opportunity. Those are the words, substantially equal opportunity,” Eldridge said.
On Aug. 25, Eldridge wrote a letter to Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen describing the funding disparity and proposed potential solutions to shore up the educational dollars.
Three days after sending the letter, Eldridge personally met with McQueen in Nashville, a meeting he “best characterized as unproductive, much like all the other meetings concerning this issue I have had in Nashville over the last several years.”
Various state laws have led to the unequal spending, allowing Johnson City to have access to revenue sources that are “off limits” to the county school system.
Johnson City educates roughly 47 percent of students in Washington County, including students from Carter, Unicoi and Sullivan counties, and receives about 69 percent of revenue from the countywide local option sales tax. Washington County, on the other hand, educates 53 percent of the students in the county but only receives 27 percent of the local option sales tax revenue.
Even if Washington County wanted to allocate more dollars into its schools, it couldn’t under state law without also appropriating the same amount to Johnson City.
Johnson CIty allocates about $13 million per year toward its schools, but isn’t required to share with county schools, Eldridge wrote.
Also, under the state’s Basic Education Program, or BEP, formula, Washington County and Johnson City are both attributed the same weight in fiscal capacity to fund education.
“This has been a problem for a long time. It was adopted by the General Assembly with their full knowledge that this problem was going to be created,” Eldridge said.
The mayor concluded Johnson City Schools are overfunded by $5.6 million per year in BEP allocations, while the county is underfunded by $2.7 million per year.
One of Eldridge’s quasi solutions included requiring Johnson City to offset the BEP difference with annual appropriations.
Teacher salaries also differ drastically between the two educational systems, with Johnson City Schools paying principals an estimated average of $40,000 more annually and teachers about $12,000 more on average per year than its county counterpart.
“You can imagine the challenge this condition creates in trying to attract the most talented and qualified candidates,” Eldridge wrote.
Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton also highlighted the challenge in the county’s teacher and administrative pay during her “State of the Schools” address.
After presenting various studies showing strong correlations between effective principals and student achievement, Halliburton estimated some neighboring school systems pay about $37,000 more than Washington County Schools do.
Eldridge did stress that Johnson City Schools shouldn’t be negatively impacted while finding a solution to the funding disparity, and asked other commissioners to join him in engaging city officials to find a collaborative solution.
“We can’t pretend that these issues aren’t bearing down on us because if we stick our head in the sand and just hope things keep going like they’ve always gone, we’re going to wake up one day really surprised,” Eldridge warned.
In other business, commissioners authorized Eldridge to pursue buying a 37-acre lot of land, owned by Mary Sanders, beside the Washington County Industrial Park for $565,500.
Commissioner Todd Hensley said the acquisition, near the 200 block of Blalock Road, could attract more corporate prospects seeking a larger space. He specifically said at least one company had backed out of a deal because the current space wasn’t large enough.
Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.