BROTHER COULDN’T SPARE A DIME

“Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.”
Arthur Miller

“I can normally tell how intelligent a man is by how stupid he thinks I am.”
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

 

 

This week Nashville’s budget process ended in a very predictable manner with Metro Council failing to pass an alternative to the mayor’s budget. The alternative budget included a property tax increase yet only offered a small fraction of the money needed by MNPS. MNPS had submitted a budget that asked for an additional $78 million in funding, the mayor’s budget allots $28 million, while the alternative budget offered $50 million. Teacher’s needed the additional funding in order for the district to fund 10% in raises, the mayor’s budget makes a 3% raise possible.

This past budget season saw some incredible people work very hard in order to address what’s fast approaching a crisis state in Metro schools. The teacher attrition rate is growing at an alarming pace, and yes some of it is part of a national trend, but what we do locally also has a direct impact. The fact is that MNPS’s current pay scale does not make it possible for teachers to live and teach in Davidson County. As a result, more and more schools are becoming understaffed. There is no getting around it, Nashville needs to address teacher compensation.

Look at the districts surrounding Davidson County and you’ll see their employment roles populated by former MNPS teachers. Teaching in an urban school district is a difficult job on its best days, it’s even worse when you are not compensated at a level that allows you to provide for your own family. In all the talk praising Nashville’s booming economy and growing national status, we’ve ignored the exploding cost of living that success has brought. We’ve ignored the fact that we are pricing out many of the people that have helped make the city the attractive place to live that it is.

When I ran for school board one of my main planks was teacher retention and recruitment. It was my intention, if elected, to start the conversation about teacher pay on day one. And not just to mention it, but add a sense of urgency to tackling the challenge. I didn’t win and that conversation didn’t start in earnest in September.

Instead, there was a focus group started to study teacher compensation that meandered throughout the fall and finally gave a report in January that provided few action steps. At that point, it was effectively too late. That time should have been spent creating a multi-tiered strategic plan that included a compelling narrative on why teachers needed a 10% raise. There should have been no reason for the mayor to ask why 10% in April because by November the why had been firmly established.

Instead, it was mid-spring before the 10% number was settled on and the narrative began. 10% was actually a decline from the 18% teachers were asking for based on missed raises over the last several years. How either number was derived at was never fully explained. I know, some will disagree with that and point to numerous explanations given, but the point is council members and the general public never understood the importance of the numbers and therefore it was hard for non-educators join advocacy initiatives.

I’ve watched politics in Tennessee over several decades and I’ve watched several worthy initiatives fail because of a failure to adequately create a narrative in a language that the general public understands. It’s not enough to convince fellow educators and already like-minded politicians about the need, you have to convince the people that never talk to a teacher, that never enter a school. You have to craft an argument that makes sense in terms they understand, not words that you think adequately explain the need.

Nowhere was that failing more visible than at the MNPS budget hearing with the mayor. When asked by the mayor how the board had settled on 10%, the best vice-chair Christiane Buggs could offer was, because they asked for it. From that moment on, the initiative for increased compensation was on life support. That may seem hyperbolic, but you can’t expect others to sell your initiative when you can’t even sell it yourself and like it or not, in order to support any initiative, council members need to be able to sell it to constituents. They were never given a story to sell.

The second grievous error was in aligning with labor unions in support of a tax increase to fund teacher raises. A tax increase that would only provide revenue to cover a 6% raise. The focus should have remained on the raise itself and not how it was funded.

Let me illustrate, I come to you and say I need 100 dollars. You tell me you don’t have 100 dollars, I reiterate the importance of me getting 100 dollars. You then say you could give me a 60 dollars but only if you went out and asked all our neighbors for 3 dollars. Do I suddenly start campaigning for you to go out and ask the neighbors to chip in to get you a portion of what I need?  Or do I again remind you that I need 100 dollars?

If I take the offer for 60 dollars and start campaigning the neighbors to pitch in, two things naturally happen. The first is, the perception is set that I didn’t really need 100 dollars or else I’d still be asking for 100 dollars. That erodes support for the ask. Better than nothing is not a compelling argument, and leads me to believe there is an even lower number you are willing to settle for.

Secondly, by championing the proposed revenue stream, I’ve added a qualifier to my argument. People may support my need for 100 dollars but not necessarily the method of meeting that goal. That leaves me with decreased support and is what happened during this last budget season.

CM Bob Mendes in a valiant effort to increase funding to MNPS proposed an alternative budget that included a modest tax increase. While it did increase money for MNPS, it would only provide for a 6% raise. Mendes laid out an eloquent argument for his budget and the tax increase, but it didn’t do so in terms that the average voter could rally behind. It also didn’t address why when Nashville residents look out their car window while stuck in traffic they see an abundance of cranes in the sky and evidence of an economic boom all around them, yet they are expected to help fuel rising costs that have resulted from this economic boom.

I think part of this is a disconnect between the political class and the average Nashvillian. It’s my perception that too few are benefiting from the economic boom of Nashville and not enough of the money is getting to the residents of the city. That’s not necessarily a perception shared by the political class.

In talking with a local politician yesterday, he argued that there are more public amenities now than ever before. He went on to argue that we’ve massively increased the number of parks in the city along with other benefits. Perhaps he could produce data to back that claim up. But it doesn’t feel like it when the number of sidewalks is still inadequate and the maintenance of those parks continues to lag. While the cost of living continues to rise with the increased traffic. Maybe it’s just a perception issue, but I don’t think I am alone in that perception.

As a result of this difference in perception, people that support teachers need for a 10% raise don’t necessarily support a property tax increase. This may not have lead to an outright withdrawal of support, it did temper the passion and level of involvement. As the focus increased on a budget that raised property taxes there was a continued dampening of existing support and because of the lack of a strong emotional narrative, it became difficult to grow support beyond the base.

Did it cost 10% of support? or 60%? or somewhere in between? I don’t know, but it undeniably weakened support. Needlessly weakened support.

Going back to our example, if I need 100 dollars why do I care where you get it? I need $100 period. A plan by you to get me only a fraction of that amount does me no good. Because in the end I still need $100.

The weekend before the council was to vote on next years budget, Budget Committee Chair Tanaka Vercher introduced her alternative budget. A budget that lowered the tax rate proposed by CM Bob Mendes but also sent less money to MNPS.  Monday Mendes merged his budget with her budget, which resulted in funding for a 4% raise for teachers. A number 1% higher than that proposed under the mayors budget.

The alternative budget failed. The Mayor’s budget became law. As much as supporters of the Vercher/Mendes budgets don’t want to hear this, the truth is, it may be the best thing for teachers.

A property tax increase is the biggest gun in the funding arsenal. Had the Vercher budget passed it would have been akin to the using of that gun to shoot a mole while the elephant was still running around. A symbolic move is not what is called for here, teachers need a substantial raise and anything under 10% ain’t going to scratch the proverbial itch.

4% of 50k translates to roughly $80 a paycheck before taxes for those who get paid 26 times a year, or $2000 annually. That’s not a number that is going to entice anybody to come to Nashville and teach, or remain if they are on the fence.

Raise taxes this year and you take away the option in the future. That 4% raise was likely going to be it for the foreseeable future. Passing the Mendes budget might have given teachers a couple bucks today but it would have allowed tax opponents the ability to say they already raised taxes to placate teachers, why do it again?

So what needs to happen now? I believe work needs to start on next years budget immediately. A narrative needs to be built on why teachers need a substantial raise, including the reality of the crisis we face. The narrative needs to built in a manner that everyone can grasp, not those that are already supporters or deeply involved in schools. Once established that narrative needs to be driven home repeatedly all fall and winter until when the spring arrives there is no question surrounding why teachers need raises.

Teachers and public school supporters need to broaden their advocacy efforts as well. Pressure needs to be placed on state officials to address funding inadequacies. Over 70% of the state’s revenue comes from sales tax, of that amount, well over 50% is generated by Nashville. Currently, I know some of Nashville’s state representatives are examing the possibility of keeping more of that revenue in Davidson County. We need to support their efforts.

A funding plan for next year needs to be developed way before April and it needs to include specific plans for multiple revenue streams to fund increased resources to MNPS. A substantial property tax is likely necessary, but let’s make it one that adequately addresses needs and doesn’t just serve to placate. It also needs to be coupled with local residents seeing more benefit from the monies they help generate.

There is a message being communicated that the failure of the alternative budgets translates into a failure for increased compensation teachers. That is not true.

The board meets today to craft a budget based on the monies allocated by the mayors budget. There is nothing that ties them to the 3% percent figure. 4 million dollars is required for each 1% raise and $8 million additional would fund step increases.

During the past month, there have been many voices demanding that council members show courage and craft a “moral budget”. I have endlessly heard that a budget is a public declaration of your priorities. If MNPS leadership decides to leave raises at 3% – a number that teachers have deemed wholly inadequate – they are sending a message that the district values 900 million dollars worth of things more than them.

It’s easier to demand courage from others than to show it yourself. You can’t convince me that in a budget over 900 million dollars we can’t find $4 million, or even better $8 million, to bring teachers up to 4% or reinstate step increase, which is what they would have received had the alternative metro budget passed. Sure it would cut some things we don’t really want to cut, but it would send a clear message to all that MNPS leadership recognizes the teacher crisis and is willing to address it where others won’t.

Let’s see what unfolds over the next year. Let’s see if alternative steps get taken. Let’s see what kind of energy gets applied to find a solution. The bottom line is that Nashville has huge teacher recruitment and retention problems. That problem needs to be solved if our students are to get the education they deserve. Adequate compensation won’t solve it completely, but there can be no solution without increased compensation being a major component.

QUICK HITS

Why does it feel like Nashville is continually choosing between the least crappy of multiple crappy plans? Transit, parking, budget, all suffer from the same malaise. When will we get the opportunity to debate the merit of two quality plans instead of having to select the worse of two evils?

Lately, I have been hearing rumblings of a plan for MNPS to bring the student services department under the Human Resources Departments purview. I’m hoping these are just rumors, as the amount of work that is needed to fix HR leaves little room for distraction. Let’s show improvement before combining departments.

Locally based National blogger Vesia Hawkins offers her insight into the early tenure of MNPS’s interim-director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle. It’s a good read and once again calls attention to abusive actions of part-time school board member Will Pinkston. Pinkston continually creates a culture within MNPS that is not unlike those in households headed up by abusive fathers. A household where members are daily traumatized because they never know which father will walk through the door or who will be the victim of his expression of self-loathing.

Come meet and greet new Hillsboro Freshman Academy principal Beatriz Salgado Monday, June 24, 5-7PM.

I know I should wait to announce this,  but I’ve heard it from enough folks, that I can’t refrain. Tusculum ES Donna Gill will be the new principal at Shayne ES. I’ve had the benefit of seeing Mrs. Gill’s work up close over the last several years and while I’m deeply saddened by her departure, I’m thrilled that Shayne parents will get the benefit of her leadership. Gonna miss this one.

Yesterday was the last day for Community Superintendent Dottie Critchlow. Ms. Critchlow now joins the ranks of retired educators, a status she most certainly has earned. Somehow though, I don’t think we’ve heard the last from her. She still has much to offer and I wouldn’t be shocked if after she recharges her batteries, she finds a new way to serve the children of Nashville. So long Ms. Critchlow and thanks for the fish. We eagerly await news of your next chapter.

That’s it for today. Thank you for your support. Make sure you check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we try to accentuate the positive. If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Thanks for your support, and if you feel so inclined, please head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Thanks to this week’s newest donors. Don’t forget to answer this week’s poll questions. Have a great weekend, and we’ll see you on Monday.

 

 

 

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