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Education underfunded: Boutwell

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 4/1/23

Commissioner John Boutwell, along with Commissioner Greg Vick, gave a report at Tuesday’s Financial Management Committee meeting that the county was under funding the schools by at least $1.9 …

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Education underfunded: Boutwell


Commissioner John Boutwell, along with Commissioner Greg Vick, gave a report at Tuesday’s Financial Management Committee meeting that the county was under funding the schools by at least $1.9 million.

This report comes from Boutwell’s tracking data on the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding as well as looking onward to the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) funding, which will go into effect on July 1.

Vick commented, “So commissioner Boutwell and I are here today to share our findings on how this county commission has been funding our schools, how we stack up with our neighboring counties and what we need to understand is going to happen with future funding.

“It is not very pretty, in fact it is embarrassing,” said Vick.

Boutwell, while serving on the school board, said he kept a spread sheet on local per student funding.

In 2013, per pupil spending was $1,258.56. In 2022, it was $1,578.03. However, put inflation into the calculation and $1200 in 2013 is the same as $1600 in 2022. Therefore, according to Boutwell, per pupil funding hasn’t grown much.

For the BEP formula, funding includes both a state share and a local share. To ensure counties are paying their fair share, an equalization formula is driven primarily by property values and sales tax, Boutwell explained.  

This formula represents the “capacity” a county has for funding education. That is, the state funds 66% of the BEP on average. But — based on local capacity — the state can fund as little as 25% or as much as 90%.

So, when it comes to funding the local portion, this is where Maintenance of Effort (MOE) comes into play. This law ensures that local funds budgeted for schools do not decrease as state funding for schools increases, Boutwell explained.

Out of 142 school districts, “in 2022, 96% of local governments funded more than BEP required,” Boutwell said.

So, who makes up the 4% who didn’t fund more than required? Fayette, Dekalb, Cumberland, Sweetwater, and Bedford.

Of that list, Bedford comes in second to last when it comes to under funding the BEP requirement. The required BEP funding for Bedford is $14,612,000; Bedford’s actual contribution was $12,633,000 — a -13.5% variance.

Now, the BEP local portion is not required to be funded under law. Boutwell said it is used to determine how much the state funds education for a county.

Also, of that 4% list, Bedford has the highest number of students at 8,950 students.

Boutwell’s data showed, comparing Bedford to surrounding counties, Coffee County — excluding Manchester City and Tullahoma City schools — gave 69% more than required. Marshall gave almost 15% more. Lincoln gave 19% more. Franklin gave 46% more.

When looking at sales tax and property tax, where school systems get their funding, 34.7% of property and sales tax is allocated to the schools.

According to Bedford County Mayor Chad Graham, 50% of sales tax has to go to schools. This seemed to spread confusion during the meeting as to why Bedford was under the mark.

Bedford’s required 2023 local match for the BEP funding (which the state is still under today) is $14,612,000. But the fiscal year 2022 local contribution was only $12,632,639. Therefore, this puts Bedford at a variance of $1,979,361 or -13.55%.

This puts Bedford at the very bottom of funding when compared to other counties in the South-Central Core District.

When the Times-Gazette asked where this money should be allocated from — or if the county was funding something too much — Boutwell and Vick declined to comment.

Affects TISA

Under the new TISA funding formula, every school is guaranteed $6,860 per pupil. More is given to students and counties who are considered economically disadvantaged, in concentrated poverty, have limited English or learning disabilities, or are part of charter school education.

According to Boutwell, under this new TISA funding, if Bedford continues this “slide” of underfunding schools, the school system will still be last when compared to how other counties fund.

Under TISA, the state is requiring less local contribution from counties.

The TISA local required contribution is $13,182,612. Based on Bedford’s fiscal year 2022 budget, the local contribution will only be $12,632,639, leaving Bedford at $549,973 variance or -4.17%.

Though not as severe of a gap as under the BEP formula, Boutwell and Vick argue this “slide” down needs to be stopped now before it continues to grow.

“We have to stop this funding slide,” said Vick. “We have to get in front of this problem and we have to have more money dedicated to education…”

Teacher pay and retention

Boutwell’s main point for bringing up this sliding down of funding was to emphasize the importance of paying and retaining teachers in Bedford.

This is especially crucial, according to Boutwell, as Bedford has one of the highest ELL populations in Tennessee. Bedford even has a higher percentage of ELL students (at 14%) than Memphis-Shelby County Schools (at 13%). Bedford’s 14% equals to about 1,200 students.

These students typically require more resources to ensure they can become proficient in the English language, which is usually their second language.

For the county, there are 16 students per teacher. This is a higher ratio compared to other South-Central counties who have 14 or 15 students per teacher, with some counties, like Perry, with 11 students per teacher.

“Our county, we have one of the more challenging districts to educated because of our diversity, particularly our English as a Second Language piece. So with that, it takes greater resources than the average school system,” said Boutwell.