Johnson City school board talks funding, capital projects

Johnson City Education Association President Joe Crabtree invited members of the board and community to attend the “Rally For Our Schools” in Nashville on March 16.

State lawmakers recently moved to cancel statewide TNReady exams for public school districts amid school closures urged by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

House Bill 2818, which passed the House Curriculum, Testing and Innovation Subcommittee Wednesday before being approved by lawmakers Thursday, would ensure teachers, students and schools aren’t penalized for not taking standardized tests or scoring poorly on them.

The bill has been met with the support of Johnson City Education Association President Joe Crabtree, who said local and state teacher union leaders with the Tennessee Education Association have been concerned school closures could negatively impact test results.

“With schools being canceled for weeks on end, we’re losing valuable instruction time, and we won’t have the chance to make up that instruction time if we have to spend our time on these two weeks of testing,” he said. “Us going back and having to do those tests almost right away if we go back in April is hectic, because you have staff that has to spend so much time getting these tests ready to administer.

“The other part of the problem is you’re going to have schools across the state who are out for weeks, and every system is different. Some schools are out for two weeks, others are out for months, so there’s no equity there with the testing if everyone’s out for long periods of time.”

Crabtree said the standardized state exam, which state and local education union officials have long been critical of, impacts students’ final grades. It can also impact teacher evaluation scores for the year, which can impact their tenure, pay and more.

Johnson City Schools will be closed for all activities until April 6. Crabtree said the lack of instructional time in classrooms that’s come as a result of public school closures could negatively impact student performance, which could hurt students’ grades and in turn, school funding.

“It can affect funding in the long run,” he said. “The whole idea in Tennessee is that, if the schools aren’t doing well, funding can be taken away. That doesn’t make any sense because the schools that need the most help need better funding and aren’t getting it.”

Crabtree and other union officials also support provisions against penalizing districts that do choose to take the test and perform poorly.

“Let’s say a system did take the test, it would not negatively impact the students, teachers or the school in that case,” he said. “If it would better their position and improve their scores, they can use the data. If it was going to have a negative impact, then it wouldn’t be used.

The governor has made other moves that would impact public education in response to the pandemic, which had affected 154 patients statewide and one in Sullivan County by Thursday afternoon. Some of those moves are less favorable to teachers and students, according to Crabtree.

Lee’s revised budget, which was finalized Wednesday, takes investments in public education down from $650 million to about $150 million. Crabtree said the cuts in the budget will affect an array of student services and teacher pay.

“I understand he’s making cuts because of this COVID-19 situation, and the funds are needed to take care of the situation — I get that. But some of the investments he’s taking away are investments in mental health. There was a huge chunk of money he was going to put in for mental health services that our students increasingly need across the state,” Crabtree said, adding concerns about cuts for some literacy programs.

“As far as teacher pay goes, it’s going to cut his 4% pay increase to 2%,” he later continued. “We’re kind of disappointed that we have to make these cuts, but we understand that they need to be be made …”

Lee’s budget, however, did not cut any of the $37 million in funding to the state’s voucher program. Since the program was announced last year, Crabtree and other state public education advocates have criticized the initiative as a way to funnel funds from public schools into charter schools.

“The one piece he did leave in was the total funding he put in for vouchers. There was no cut made to the voucher initiative,” Crabtree pointed out.