Updated: Hamilton County school system files lawsuit against state

Superintendent Rick Smith. (Photo: Staff)

Authored By david.morton

The Hamilton County Board of Education and school boards from six other counties filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee Tuesday morning in a dispute over public school funding.

Their complaint in Davidson County Chancery Court contends that state government has shifted the cost of public education to local school boards, personnel and students, “resulting in substantially unequal educational opportunities across the state.”

The seven counties argue that the state’s current funding formula, Basic Education Program, underestimates the cost of teachers’ salaries and benefits by nearly $600 million and has produced a shortfall of approximately $134 million in its share of classroom funding.

The lawsuit was announced one day after Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith and school chiefs from Tennessee’s three largest school districts met with Gov. Bill Haslam and new Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to discuss education funding.

While Smith said it was a “very positive meeting,” he issued a statement Tuesday announcing that the school system would press forward with its legal challenge. The school board approved the lawsuit earlier this month.

The superintendent’s statement says the “Hamilton County Board of Education has every intention to continue working with the governor’s office and the leadership of the General Assembly to secure the adequate funding of education for all Tennesseans.”

“The board does not believe that its decision to assert its legal claims should preclude productive dialogue since everyone, ultimately, wants the very best education for everyone in our state,” the statement continues. “We look forward to working with the governor and the General Assembly to improve Tennessee’s system of public education.”

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith responded to the lawsuit by email, “The governor is very disappointed after he and the commissioner made the commitment yesterday to a collaborative process to work closely with districts on these issues, and litigation will obviously decrease potential for collaboration.”

The school boards of Bradley, McMinn, Marion, Grundy, Coffee and Polk counties are also listed as plaintiffs in the complaint.

Their complaint cites the state’s late 2014 report indicating that BEP does not incorporate the full cost of insurance premiums over 12 months. The report makes other recommendations aimed at improving the funding formula.

After a meeting with school officials Monday, McQueen told reporters that the Tennessee Education Department is moving forward with a task force to examine how the BEP formula is used to determine the state’s share of education funding.

The school boards of Hamilton, Shelby and Knox counties have all voted to sue the state over what they contend is inadequate funding through BEP. Davidson County has decided to momentarily hold off on legal action.

Earlier this year, Haslam announced that his upcoming budget will include an additional $170 million in state spending for K-12 education, including $44 million for BEP.

While funding challenges are a recurring theme for the Hamilton County Department of Education, the district is proposing an additional $34 million in general purpose spending this year that could necessitate a 14 percent property tax hike.

The school spending plan would increase employee salaries and benefits by 5 percent, fund new positions and pay for technology upgrades throughout the district, records show.

Updated @ 12:11 p.m. on 3/24/15 to add more information.
Updated @ 12:45 p.m. on 3/24/15 to add more information.
Updated @ 2:30 p.m. on 3/24/15 to add more information.