Proposed legislation causes school board concern
by DELANEY WALKER Banner Staff Writer
Mar 06, 2014 | 1273 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Cleveland Board of Education and the Director of City Schools Dr. Martin Ringstaff sent a letter of concern to state Sen. Mike Bell and state Reps. Kevin Brooks and Eric Watson.

The letter addressed House bills 2250 and 2293, as well as Senate Bill 0677.

Ringstaff and the board agreed the proposed bills encroached on the school board’s control of the budget.

“We believe in the ability of the local school board to control their own budgets at all times,” Ringstaff wrote. “We see these bills as a dangerous path allowing line-item vetoes, government altering and vested control over any budget item for public school systems.”

County and municipal governments provide the final approval on a school’s entire budget. Any issues with the budget results in another review by the school board and administrators. The process continues until the local government approves the budget.

The proposed House and Senate bills would place more power over school budgets in the local government’s hands.

- House Bill 2250 sponsored by Williamson County State Rep. Glen Casada of District 63 proposed school district budgets be subject to line-item veto by local governments when administrative spending exceeds 10 percent of the proposed budget.

Currently the law allows for alterations and revisions of the entirety of the budget within the state laws and regulations. The bill would permit local governments to adjust and revise line items within the budget. According to the bill summary, administrative costs include expenditures for board of education services, the office of the superintendent, office of the principal and human resources support services.

The bill would take effect for fiscal years beginning in 2015.

Ringstaff described the bill as a “severe overreach and injustice” to the LEA, or local education association, in this case the Cleveland City Schools system.

- House Bill 2293 sponsored by Williamson County State Rep. Jeremy Durham of District 65 would authorize revisions and alterations by local government to the portion of a school budget “allocated for lobbying expenditures.” The bill has since passed the Local Government committee. It has been sent to the Calendar and Rules committee.

According to the bill summary, “lobbying expenditures” are defined as money used to influence legislative action or administrative action through direct or indirect communication with any official in the legislative branch or executive branch.

The bill also includes dues paid to entities that lobby as a “lobbying expenditure.” This would include dues paid by the Cleveland Board of Education to the Tennessee School Board Association and those paid to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. A portion of membership dues to TSBA and TOSS finances the salaries of four lobbyists.

The Cleveland school board and Ringstaff highlighted the lobbyists hired by out-of-state companies and “alleged” nonprofits who reportedly lobby the state representatives and senators to “obtain funds from the public education system.”

Ringstaff wrote the obtained money in turn would then benefit private companies and organizations.

“Many of these companies are out-of-state companies, and HB 2293 would silence the true Tennesseans elected by Tennessee taxpayers, who are fighting for the rights of a true public school education,” Ringstaff wrote. “Allowing line item access to eliminate the purpose of lobbying only hurts those within Tennessee as the true outside lobbyists are not addressed.”

The bill would apply to budgets in the 2015 fiscal year, if passed.

Ringstaff said the bill would limit the school systems’ ability to voice opposition to any bills labeled as harmful to public education.

Added the director of city schools, “[Voicing opposition against bills] should be allowed because they are fighting for our kids in the schools. ... It is obvious, if nothing else, that we need lobbyists right now with these kinds of bills flying through. If we couldn’t fight bills like this that are gaining ground, who would?”

- Senate Bill 0677, or the Fiscal State Tracking and Accountability Report (STAR) System Act, sponsored by state Sen. Dolores R. Gresham of District 26 would assign a fiscal star rating to LEAs, schools and public charter schools.

Public education institutions would receive stars based on fiscal outcomes and financial operations. The most a school could receive is an “excellent” 5-star schools ranking with the lowest being a “failing” 1-star schools ranking. The commissioner of education would determine “the current distribution of performance” for all schools, the comparative annual performance of each LEA, school or public charter school and the financial performance of a school’s peer.

Each school’s performance and fiscal data would be placed on the department’s website by the commissioner. Star ratings for three years would be listed for all schools, LEAs and public charter schools. Ranked lists would allow for comparisons between the institutions’ peers.

A rating of two stars or lower would result in several interventions.

The first intervention would pair a low-performing educational institution with a high-performing peer. The second intervention would be a line-item approval of the school budget by the commissioner. The power to allocate funds as “determined to be in the best interests” of the LEA would rest in the commissioner’s hands. The third intervention would be an appointed financial receiver who reports directly to the commissioner.

According to the bill summary, the appointed individual would have the “sole ability” without approval from the school or local governing body to create and execute all budgets and spending plans; negotiate, renegotiate, approve and enter into contracts for the LEA; sell, assign, transfer or otherwise use the assets of the LEA; and, among others, use the LEA’s budget to employ or contract any school staff or administrators deemed necessary to implement the bill.

Nonpublic schools allotted public money for the tuition of students will be subject to data collection and reporting requirements dictated by the bill.

Ringstaff labeled the bill a “complete overreach” on the state level.

He said the bill would bypass the local commissions and councils.

The estimated fiscal impact of SB 0677 on the state level would be expenditures of $294,100 for 2014-15, and $588,100 for subsequent years. The increased expenditures would eventually cover the salaries for six new personnel. The positions would “oversee the Fiscal STAR rating system, verify data, assign ratings, monitor interventions and serve as LEA financial receivers as needed.”

A one-time local expenditure would be $25,000 in 2014-15 for the estimated 68 LEAs in need of upgrading financial reporting software “to enable school-level financial reporting.” The total overall expenditure would be $1,700,000.

Information on all three bills can be found by visiting tn.gov and clicking on the government tab.

Ringstaff stated in the letter the Cleveland City School Board “stands united” in its opposition of the bills.