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NET schools band together to oppose BEP changes

SAM WATSON • Mar 27, 2007 at 1:48 AM

JOHNSON CITY - Leaders from five area cities banded together Monday to fight state school funding changes that could cost local schools millions to support other locales.

"I think we are at a crucial crossroads in terms of decision making for the state," Kingsport School Superintendent Richard Kitzmiller said as he updated the officials on the state proposals in a gathering at the Centre at Millennium Park.

School and city staff members joined elected officials from Bristol, Elizabethton, Greeneville, Johnson City and Kingsport to commiserate about proposed revisions to the state's Basic Education Program.

Kitzmiller, a member of the state's BEP review committee, reported that under one model, local municipal school systems would lose significant state funding: Johnson City, about $6.68 million; Kingsport, $6.06 million; Bristol, $1.59 million; Greeneville, $1.58 million; and Elizabethton, $1 million.

Meanwhile, large counties, including some that do not have municipal school systems within their borders, would profit: Hamilton County, $10.06 million; Davidson County, $7.57 million; and Knox County, $2.1 million.

Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson said all the cities represented at the meeting contributed a lot of money to education in addition to the state funding. Unlike cities that support municipal schools, cities like Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville are under no obligation to contribute funds from city property taxes and their shares of local-option sales taxes to schools.

Peterson said the local cities that operate municipal districts had gone the extra mile, but the state was looking to redistribute the contributions to communities that had not.

"Therefore, we have a common cause," Peterson said, adding that the BEP changes represented one of the top three most important legislative issues in the state.

Peterson noted that making up the losses would equate to 60 cents per $100 of assessed value on Johnson City's property tax rate.

"The train is coming. We've seen the light," Peterson said. "There has been too much discussion for too long for something not to change."

Likening the local cities' plight to the SS Minnow from the "Gilligan's Island" television show, Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden said the communities were all in the same boat and could feel a sinking sensation with regard to school funding.

Darden said goals for Monday's session included hearing the latest information about the proposals, gaining insight into the Bredesen administration's reasons for not increasing education funding rather than redistributing a finite pie, and how the cities might collectively work to achieve full funding.

Throughout the meeting, local officials said state funding levels were inadequate and called on state leaders to contribute more money to education to fix disparities rather than redistributing the limited pot that exists.

Kitzmiller noted that Tennessee spends an average of about $6,500 per pupil on education from state and local sources compared to the national average of about $9,500. Of that $6,500 per pupil, only $5,109 comes from BEP allocations.

"Basic is simply not enough," Kitzmiller said. "Basic has outlived its time."

Johnson City Director of Schools Richard Bales outlined numerous possible effects of losing the funds, including lost teaching and support staff positions, preschool programs, reading programs, non-revenue-producing sports, Advanced Placement courses and technology.

Area leaders were joined by officials from Alcoa and Maryville in Blount County, where a similar coalition of systems affected by the proposals has been developed. The Blount officials said they had entertained contracting with a lobbyist to be the cities' eyes and ears in Nashville on the BEP issue - a concept that met favorable reaction from local leaders.

Over the last three years, state officials have discussed making changes to the BEP's wealth calculations, a formula providing funding to the state's school districts and supplemented by local matching funds based on community wealth.

The existing BEP is calculated in part with a wealth index figured on a countywide basis, lumping cities and counties into the same wealth category.

Proposed revisions to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations' index would individually figure each of the 136 school districts' ability to provide a local share of the BEP.

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