Knox Schools are Getting More Than Meets the Eye

The publicized $384.7 million budget that the school board approved earlier this month doesn't begin to tell the full story of the money going to Knox County schools in the year ahead.

Upwards of $50 million in additional, mostly federal, funding will be flowing into the school system that's not included in the budget. About half goes for longstanding programs that augment instruction at schools with a high proportion of low-income students (known as Title I schools) and children with disabilities (under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The other half encompasses an array of grants for periods ranging up to five years. Some of this represents Knox County's entitlement under the $501 million (over four years) Race to the Top Award that Tennessee succeeded in getting last year. But much of it represents Superintendent Jim McIntyre and his staff's singular success in competing for other multi-year grants primarily for strategic compensation initiatives aimed at rewarding superior teachers in selected schools.

Over and above the federal money, the school system is also due to get $6.2 million next school year from the not-for-profit Great Schools Partnership, which commendably raises most of it privately for a variety of earmarked initiatives. And then there's the $1.8 million that comes from the state for its pre-K program that's run and staffed by the school system but also doesn't show in its budget or position count.

When asked whether all of the "off budget" funding detracts from transparency in school budgeting, McIntyre responds, "Our goal is to be extraordinarily transparent. In our general fund budget we provided 77 pages of detail, covering every department because we want to make sure the public understands what our general fund budget looks like and what we are trying to accomplish with it. We also recognize that additional sources of revenues and grants have an impact, and I think you see a pretty substantial delineation of what we receive in the grant spread sheet [that accompanies the budget]. This was our first attempt at doing that... and this is something that going forward we will include as a standard part of the budget package."

I certainly agree that a separate general fund is needed to present unrestricted sources and uses of school funds (whereas all of the grant funds have strings attached). Unrestricted revenues are a proportion of local property and sales taxes that has been fixed for many years plus a formula-driven allocation of state dollars under its Basic Education Program (BEP). Even with an economic recovery underway, general fund revenues are only projected to grow by about $5 million (a little more than 1 percent) to $384.7 million in the fiscal year ahead. On the other hand, the school system's fixed costs are expected to increase by about $11 million. These expenses are primarily for contractually committed seniority (STEP) raises for teachers and the need to cover locally about half of the cost of a 1.6 percent statewide pay raise for all teachers but also include things like employee benefits, debt service, and utility cost increases.

That leaves a $6 million shortfall that is covered in part by the elimination of 16 central office positions. The only thing that spared the schools from having to make much deeper cuts in teaching positions is a one-year allocation from the Education Jobs bill that Congress approved last fall. Some $6 million in these funds saved 70 teachers and 28 administrative positions from the chopping block for a year. Yet even with this allocation, there was no room in the budget for the $2 million needed to purchase new math textbooks that McIntyre considers imperative to keep instruction aligned with the state's more rigorous curriculum requirements. (But revenue growth could well exceed very conservative predictions by enough to cover this gap.)

Hiring teachers and buying textbooks are not within the gamut of what any of the federal grant funds the school system is receiving will permit. About half of the $13.3 million in Race to the Top funds allocated by the state to Knox County over four years is earmarked for strategic compensation and the next largest component goes to the Leadership Academy that represents a collaboration between the school system and the University of Tennessee to train new principals. Knox schools were one of four systems in the state to be selected for an additional RTTT award for strategic compensation totaling $4.5 million over three years.

Just what these funds will be used for remains to be determined. McIntyre has been holding public forums and conducting teacher surveys to get input before making recommendations to the school board which must, in turn, be submitted for state approval by June.

By far the largest grant received and for a very specific purpose is $25 million over five years for expansion of the Teachers Advancement Program (TAP) from four schools presently to 18 with "high needs" starting next fall. This grant was obtained in collaboration with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which oversees the TAP program in schools across the country. McIntyre is convinced the TAP model for mentoring, evaluating, and rewarding teachers for superior performance has been transformative.

A big question, however, is the sustainability of the program when the grant runs out. McIntyre voices hope that a robust economy will generate enough additional revenue to keep it going, and that "it's incumbent on us to try to do so." But he adds that, "Even in a worst-case scenario, we will have built the capacity of our teachers to sustain success and changed the culture of those schools for many years to come, even if the incentives go away."

Nor does he believe that there are too many strings attached to the grant funds the school system has received. "We've tried to be very disciplined as to the types of resources that we accept from outside sources," he asserts. "If a grant opportunity isn't aligned with our strategic plan, we're not going to go after that money. The good news is that after you are very clear about what you are trying to accomplish, when you articulate a clear vision. There are lots of folks who are interested in helping to support that."