Many school jobs left out of BEP

·8 min read

Nov. 22—Cumberland County schools has more than 93 certified staff positions that are not included in the state's Basic Education Program Funding — and more non-certified positions left out of the formula first developed in 1992.

It's one of the most common complaints against the funding formula that considers 46 different components in determining state and local funding for local school systems.

"This is something we had hoped the state would take a look at," said Director of Schools Ina Maxwell. "I had hoped for more of an analysis and looking at it, and is it reasonable? One nurse for every 3,000 students isn't reasonable."

Kacee Harris, chief financial officer, said, "I think if they would fund a larger piece of the components that are in there, it would really change the ballgame for public education."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has launched a series of meetings and special committees tasked with developing a completely new funding model for schools that could go before the Tennessee General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.

But Maxwell said little is known about what the governor's committee will develop or what is meant by a "student-centered funding model." She said there are some basic components every school needs in order to serve students — a principal, assistant principal, librarian, a full-time Response to Instruction and Intervention coordinator, a mental health counselor, a school counselor and enough teachers to serve the students.

"There has to be a way to look at what each school needs. Then, based on population, how many teachers does each school need — then fully fund what they need," Maxwell said.

The BEP provided $35.39 million in funding for Cumberland County schools in the 2021-'22 budget, with a required local match of $18.7 million from local taxes, including $12.6 million in sales tax revenue and $5.6 million in property tax revenue. Local revenue makes up about 31.4% of the budget while the BEP provides 59.5% of the budget. Other funding sources in the $59.8 million budget includes about $205,000 in other local revenue and various state grants, like those for pre-K, coordinated school health and Safe Schools.

The extra teaching and certified personnel positions include teachers required to meet state rules for class size or provide specific course opportunities.

"These aren't positions we have 'just because,'" said Maxwell.

Some federal and state grants help pay for extra positions, like some of the salary for 12 certified pre-K teachers and 15 teaching positions paid through federal funds.

The BEP provides 27.7 career and technical education teachers for the school system, but there are 41 teachers providing those career-focused classes. The BEP funds 14.58 art and music teachers, with 22 funded positions.

And while the state formula calculates a minimum number of teachers needed in a school system, the funding for those positions is based on a state weighted average teacher salary — $48,330 per position. The state pays about 69.1% of that salary component.

The shortfall in funded positions impacts teacher pay — something Harris said Cumberland County is always looking to improve. But it also impacts pay for non-certified positions, many of which the school system has struggled to fill this year.

"That's something we're going to have to look at, especially with the labor shortage that we have," Harris said.

The BEP calculates funding for custodians at $25,900 per year per funded position. Cumberland County earns 35 custodial positions from the BEP, but has budgeted for 55.5 positions, with a starting salary of $9.41 per hour.

Other areas the formula doesn't reflect current school needs include assistant principals, school nurses, technology staff and human resources.

The formula calls for 3.5 assistant principals across the system. This past year, the Cumberland County Board of Education approved staffing a full-time assistant principal for schools with more than 200 students and part-time assistant principals at the Phoenix School and Pine View Elementary School.

Maxwell said, "It's critical to have these people in place not only to assist the principal, but to help with all the activities in the school. There are so many duties the principal has to take care of. Having that extra set of hands is invaluable."

Principals are in charge of school budgets and fiscal operations, teacher evaluations, inventory control and curriculum review, in addition to handling student discipline and communicating with parents.

"There are so many services, so many more requirements from state and federal levels that are passed down each year," Maxwell said. "And we can't create more hours in the day."

All schools are required to offer RTI, where students take part in small-group instructional sessions for 20 to 60 minutes each day depending on their level of academic need. That program requires tracking a lot of student achievement data and reporting on progress or additional remediation for students.

The BEP provides for one RTI position per 2,750 students.

The BEP calls for one school nurse per 3,000 students. Cumberland County staffs a nurse in each of its 12 schools.

The school system has more than 1,000 employees, but the BEP doesn't include funding for human resources staff. Cumberland County has an HR supervisor and secretary.

The formula provides for one technology coordinator, with another available for each 6,400 students. Cumberland County has one technology supervisor and nine technicians who service more than 13,000 devices — from computers for students and teachers to whiteboards to temperature scanners used during the pandemic. They also take on projects like wiring schools for internet and WiFi service and handle most repairs in-house.

The state also pays about 69.1% of the $7,392.84 annual single coverage health insurance premiums for certified employees for the number of employees the formula generates. Cumberland County pays the cost of employee and children insurance for teachers and certified personnel, which costs an average of $13,815 this year. The school system also pays the single insurance premium for all full-time employees.

"We look at our budget and we cut where we can," said Harris. "Historically, it has been in the maintenance of our buildings and bigger ticket items we can cut. We needed six buses this year, so we scaled that back to maybe get three."

Harris said decisions are often more complicated than identifying wants versus needs.

"Sometimes you have to look at your needs and see what's the greatest impact need," she said.

Maxwell said Cumberland County is fortunate that the facilities are in good shape, though she noted that keeping facilities in good shape requiress ongoing work.

"It's prioritizing needs and ensuring that everyone has the basics," she said.

Harris added, "And maintenance is ongoing."

Lee has named more than 150 individuals to a committee and 18 subcommittees reviewing the funding formula. He has called for a formula that is "student-centered." Student-centered funding allows money to follow a child to his or her school based on individual needs.

But Maxwell questioned the timeline, with Lee wanting to have a new formula before state lawmakers in just a few months.

"It's concerning to think they may be looking at starting from scratch but yet have something in place in a couple of months," she said. "Let's look at the framework that's there and ask what each school needs to be successful."

Maxwell said Cumberland County has provided a strong public education system even with the deficiencies in the current funding model, but she is uncomfortable with a funding formula that tries to place a dollar value on students.

"We just aren't a manufacturing line where we manufacture the same product," Maxwell said. "I don't want to use the word 'worth' or that a student 'generates' a dollar amount."

Having money follow specific students would also be an "accounting nightmare" for schools and counties, especially with families who may change schools frequently, she said.

Harris encourages the state to hold off on a complete change in state funding for schools and instead look at areas that are not considered in the formula and update ratios to better reflect school needs.

"Let public education be all it can be," she said. "See what we can do if we weren't trying to go down our needs list and still make cuts. If we had our needs met, even, imagine what we could do.

"I don't know what the answer is, but I don't think it's wadding it [the BEP] up and throwing it away."

The state is hosting a public town hall on the funding review Nov. 30 at Jackson County Middle School, 170 Blue Devil Lane, Gainesboro, TN, beginning at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will also be streamed online on Facebook or Microsoft Teams Livestream.

Members of the Cumberland County Commission are planning to attend the meeting, but will meet at 4 p.m. at the Cumberland County Courthouse to review minutes from their Nov. 8 meeting before traveling to Jackson County.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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