Today is Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why don't we let the school board raise taxes?

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Some things never seem to change in local government, specifically the annual struggle to strike a balance between the county commission and the Wilson County school system when it comes to adequate funding levels.

The new director of schools, Dr. Tim Setterlund, has publicly stated he hopes to improve things in this area by building trust through open communications with the commission and the public. I applaud him for taking this position and for recognizing that trust between the two parties is critical going forward.

But I propose what I believe to be an even better approach. It definitely is courageous and out of the box for Tennessee, although it hasnt been for other states. And it requires trust not between two governmental bodies, but rather between the Board of Education and the public.

Tennessee is one of only 11 states that do not grant school boards the authority to levy taxes. Three states without a voter referendum requirement place a cap on school taxes, while 36 states require the voters to approve via referendrum school budgets, any property tax increases or bond issues.

If 39 other states have realized that the ultimate authority for taxation to fund schools should be with the body that spends their tax dollars, why can't Tennessee?

Five years ago in 2008, the Tennessee School Board Association tried to start a dialogue and get some momentum for this. From 2009 through 2012, the following was listed on the associations annual list of Legislative Agenda items: Fiscal Independence TSBA supports legislation to provide fiscal autonomy to boards of education.

But in 2013, they apparently gave up on that goal, because their Legislative Agenda for this year under the heading Fiscal Independence reads: "TSBA supports legislation to provide fiscal autonomy to boards of education by removing the prohibition on existing school districts from converting to special school districts."

The reason they want to remove that prohibition is because special school districts in Tennessee are fiscally independent, while city and county districts must rely on the county governing body to set the county school tax rate.

Still, city districts have another possible revenue stream, the city governing body, to which they can petition for additional funding and tax rates.

Meanwhile, special school districts, such as the Lebanon Special School District, are the only school governing bodies that may directly levy tax rates in addition to the county rate. However, if they want to increase the tax rate beyond the limit set when the private act that created them was enacted, they must petition the state legislature directly.

This leaves the county boards of education across the state with only one local funding mechanism – the county commission and whatever it decides to give them.

Why is this important? Because education is the largest single line item in our county's budget at 51 percent.

Unfortunately, despite the TSBAs four-year effort to get this item on its legislative agenda passed, the movement never got any traction. Granted, it would require a change to the states Constitution, but that shouldn't stop them.

After all, Tennessee went 20 years without a single change to the Constitution, but in the past 15 years, our state lawmakers have made up for lost time. Since 1998, seven amendments have gone before the voters and all but one has passed.

And guess what? There are three newly proposed amendments scheduled for the Nov. 6, 2014 ballot. (Trust me at some point next year, I'll cover each of these long before you go to the ballot box.)

Oh, I've heard the arguments from several county commissioners that if you give the Board of Education the power to levy taxes that they'll have to move out of the county because they won't be able to afford to live here anymore. Really?

That's an interesting argument, but not based in truth because national surveys have shown that school boards don't raise taxes every year. In fact, they've been known to reduce taxes from time to time. I've actually witnessed it in another state on more than one occasion.

Why? Because the school board members know that if they continually grow the schools budget without restraint, they won't be re-elected.

I personally know of a school board in north Georgia that was recalled because the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accrediting agency placed the system on probation for financial mismanagement, and unlike a similar situation here in Wilson County a couple of decades ago, those five members did not win their seats back when they challenged it in court. Why? Because the court held they were ultimately accountable for the money they raised and the money they spent because they alone had the taxing authority.

In other words, the people held the school board members accountable for the whole kit-and-caboodle. In Tennessee, school board members can hide behind the shield of county commissioners when they mismanage their finances by saying, "We had no choice. They only gave us so much money, and we had to spend it on X instead of B like we said. The children needed it."

I urge Tennessees leaders to be courageous and bold. Open up a true and honest dialogue about our schools' funding mechanisms. A saying I hear a lot in Wilson County is, "He who holds the gold, makes the rules."

Well, I say it's time to change who rules when it comes to education.

Columnist Amelia Morrison Hipps may be contacted at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com.

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Board of Education, Dr. Tim Setterlund, funding, Tennessee School Boards Association, Wilson County Commission
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