The Tennessee School Boards Association’s Northeast Fall District meeting was held Monday at Rogersville City School, where school boards from the eight Northeast Tennessee counties convened to discuss education issues. The hottest topic of discussion this year is funding.
The TSBA is handing out a legislative survey to school board members across the state as it travels from district to district this fall, and the questions focus mainly on ways of saving money or generating new funds.
The results of the survey will help guide the TSBA as it prepares its positions and recommendations for the next state legislative session.
One question asks board members to indicate if they would be in favor of changes in Tennessee law to implement four-day school days by lengthening the school day to about eight hours.
Five states within the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), of which Tennessee is a member, allow four-day school weeks. But currently only two states have schools on that type of schedule — Kentucky and Louisiana.
TSBA Assistant Executive Director Stephen Smith explained that the main advantage to a four-day school week would be savings in transportation and utility costs. Smith noted, however, that a recent SREB study on the subject revealed several pros and cons for school leaders to consider before making such a scheduling change.
“The obvious pro would be the financial savings — fuel, cafeteria food, utilities, and you may have some hourly workers that you could cut back,” Smith said. “Some of the school districts took that savings and used the money to provide specialized attention to those students that have increased needs. They also said that there were increased attendance rates for students and teachers, there were declines in student discipline problems, and fewer hours spent commuting and longer blocks of instruction time for classes such as science labs.”
Some of the cons include the length of the school day can be a problem for the younger children and can affect students’ ability to maintain focus, Smith said.
Child care, nutrition programs and child supervision were also concerns. The four-day week had a negative impact on extracurricular activities such as after-school sports and caused problems for students with after-school jobs.
And Smith noted that public perception is a problem for the four-day week scenario.
“The public perception is we’re giving them a day off,” Smith said. “The public may perceive going to a four-day school week as cutting back on instructional time.”
Colorado has the longest history of implementing the four-day week in school systems. According to the SREB study, student achievement didn’t change one way or another in Colorado by changing to a four-day week.
Smith told the board members in attendance Monday that funding is going to be the main issue for Tennessee school systems in coming years, even more so than it already is. That’s why the TSBA is concerning itself with funding and cost-savings issues such as a four-day school week in the next state legislative session.
Potential state spending cuts in education combined with local government’s inability to meet the increased funding demands for schools has created what Smith described as “the perfect storm” for public education in Tennessee.
There were two other questions on the TSBA legislative survey. One question asks board members if they support legislation permitting existing school districts to convert to a “special school district” through a private legislative act. That would give school districts the power to operate independently of a county commission or city council, but its school tax rate would be approved by the General Assembly.
Smith noted one advantage to that system is elimination of funding battles that often occur between school boards and local governing bodies.
“The public is generally much more supportive of a tax increase if they know that every penny of that is going to education, which is how it works with a special school district,” Smith said.
Smith admitted, however, that the third survey question was a bit more controversial. It asks board members if they believe districts should be fiscally independent with taxing authority. Tennessee is one of only 11 states that don’t allow school boards the authority to implement taxes.
“I think the biggest pro to this is a clear line of accountability,” Smith said. “The school board is charged with developing the goals and objectives of the school system, and currently the money to meet those goals and objectives has to be approved by another body. Often you see a school board pointing fingers at the county commission saying they’re not funding us right, and you have a county commission pointing fingers at the school board and saying they’re not using their money wisely — and the public doesn’t know which body is accountable.
“This removes unproductive battles between school boards and county commissions or city councils.”
Smith said one potential con would be changing the focus of school board elections from educational programs to taxes. There’s also a concern that giving another board authority to tax would result in higher overall taxes.