What Will It Take to Get Knox Schools Funded for Success?

It's clear that Knox County schools are underfunded. Per pupil expenditures of $8,508 this past school year fall well below the state average of $9,084 and further yet below Hamilton County's $9,398 and Davidson County's $11,080, let alone Oak Ridge's $12,112.

It's also clear that Knox County has the capacity to do better. Median household income of $46,759 ranks seventh in the state, surpassing Hamilton and Davidson. Knox County's property tax base and sales tax base are also among the highest in the state, while its property tax rate is by far the lowest of the state's four major metropolitan counties.

It's become cliched to say that just spending more on schools doesn't necessarily improve student performance. What's plainly needed are effective strategies for strengthening the quality of instruction and quantifiably raising expectations for achievement gains on the part of all students, with special interventions for those who are struggling.

Under the superb leadership of Superintendent Jim McIntyre, the Knox County school system now has a five-year strategic plan for accomplishing all of the above. Its goals are mainly expressed in terms of ambitious performance targets aimed at getting and keeping Knox students on track to graduate from high school well prepared for college and the 21st-century workforce.

Progress is being made by many measures including the high school graduation rate, which has risen from 79 percent in 2008 to 87 percent in 2011 toward a 90 percent goal. But the school system is still falling far short of its end goal of goals, which is to get 73 percent of high schoolers scoring 21 or higher on the ACT test, a score that's widely considered to be a benchmark for college preparedness. Only 38 percent met this benchmark last year. And McIntyre is clear that more resources are needed to accelerate the progress on this and other fronts.

During the near flat budget years of the Great Recession, McIntyre demonstrated he could keep a firm rein on expenses, cutting administrative overhead while still finding a way to fund (mainly with federal grants) performance bonuses for top teachers under an evaluation system that Knox County schools were the first in Tennessee to adopt and has since become the model for the rest of the state.

Now, with the economy improving and Knox County unemployment down to a lowest-in-the-state 6 percent, McIntyre and his school board have elected to propose a bold $35 million increase in school funding atop the $398 million that's projected to be derived from existing state and local revenue streams in the fiscal year ahead. An increase of this magnitude would raise Knox County school outlays by about $625 for each of its 56,000 students and thus lift them slightly above the state average.

While McIntyre and school board members aren't calling for a tax increase per se, the only way to get more than $398 million in revenues is by raising either the county's property tax rate or the local option sales tax rate. It's been 13 years since the county raised its $2.36 property tax rate, the longest period with no increase in recent memory. But County Mayor Tim Burchett is proud of that and opposes any increase now. Since each penny on the tax is worth about $1 million, it would take a 35 cent increase to generate the full $35 million sought.

In the alternative, it's the county's prerogative to initiate an increase in the 2.25 percent local sales tax, subject to voter approval in a countywide referendum. An increase to the maximum allowable 2.75 percent would generate on the order of $40 million. Under state law, half of this revenue would have to go to schools. The other half would go to the governmental entity within whose borders the sales tax took place—about 80 percent in the city and 20 percent in the county. But either or both could allocate more to schools, and there is some precedent for this.

Whether there are six votes (i.e., a majority) on the 11-member County Commission for either a property or sales tax increase is problematic at best. And the chances of a sales tax referendum passing are also dicey.

My problem with McIntyre and the school board's proposal is not with the amount sought, but with the way in which it's structured. In the first year of what's presented as a five-year "structural increase," only $7 million of the $35 million would be operating funds. The balance would go primarily for building additions and renovation of three elementary schools (Adrian Burnett, Pond Gap, and Shannondale). Classifying these in a way that makes the entire $35 million subject to what's known as the "maintenance of effort" requirement smacks of a claim-staking gambit. Maintenance of effort means that County Commission can't reduce school funding from one year to the next, but the cost of capital projects has never before been subject to this standard.

On the other hand, McIntyre is persuasive that ramping up true operating outlays by $7 million a year—encompassing the full $35 million in year five—is about as much annual growth as the school system can manage effectively. Most of the $7 million in year one would go for an array of teacher support and student intervention programs as well as an additional teacher and instruction materials at each of the system's eight magnet schools. In year two, a big part of the $7 million operating increase would go to lengthen the school year by up to a week. According to McIntyre, each extra day would cost about $1 million, mostly for supplemental teacher pay, but he believes the learning gains from additional instruction time are well worth it. In the back years, augmented teacher performance bonuses become the biggest single component of the operating increases.

The biggest chunk of money in years two through four, though, would go for instructional technology—furnishing every student with an iPad or similar device and extending a wireless network to every classroom at a total cost of more than $20 million. Space constraints dictate that this ambitious undertaking be the subject of a separate column and only allow me to close by saying that I believe McIntyre's initiative is worthy of support.