MIGHT BE TIME TO CHECK THE MAP

If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“People talk too much. Humans aren’t descended from monkeys. They come from parrots.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

 

I grew up during a time when a car trip was a standard form of family entertainment. Weekends would consistently find us loaded up and making the trek to somewhere – national park, museum, animal park, or some other tourist trap. Anything within a 2-hour radius was considered fair game.

It’s hard to imagine now, but all these journeys were made without GPS, or even a computer to look up directions. Instead, we relied on second-hand directions, road signs, and maps. Maps were always considered the last resort and there were many a popular joke rooted in the stubbornness of men in utilizing them, relying instead on their intrinsic sense of direction.

Invariably this reliance led to misdirection. I can’t count the number of times when I heard my mother riding shotgun to my father politely ask, “Jim are you sure know where you are going? Should we maybe take a look at the map?”

His response was always the same, “Relax. I know right where we are. The place is right up here a couple miles.”

Eventually, we’d have to pull over and consult the map. Usually, after the conversation between the two had become a little more heated. The map would be pulled out, unfolded, smoothed out, and we’d find out that we were miles off course. Should have turned left at the Cracker Barrel instead of right. Some terse words would be exchanged between my parents and we’d have to begin backtracking. Or we’d have to plot a different route using our current location as a starting point. In either case, valuable time was lost and a pall was cast over the car while readjustments and recalculations were made.

Sometimes we’d find that we’d gone so far out of the way, that we’d have to fill up the tank again. Finances were always tight for my family, so an extra trip to the gas station was never welcome. Depending on my mother’s mood at the time, she might remind my father, “This could have been avoided. If you’d only looked at the map.”

These observations were never welcome and never helped improve the mood in the car, nor did they make for a more successful excursion.

This past week, watching events unfold, I felt the memories from those car trips come flooding back.

BUDGET BLUES

This was the week that both Tennessee and Nashville set their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year. The state finally reached compromise on competing visions between the House and Senate sometime after midnight last night. What four months ago had promised to be a historically large investment in education went up in a puff of smoke due to the pandemic. Gone was funding for literacy, gone was money for teacher raises, even more importantly – gone was any emergency relief to help pay for new COVID-19 needs like hiring more cleaning staff and school nurses, purchasing personal protective equipment, and creating programs to help students catch up academically. PET Executive Director JC Bowman summed up educator feelings best via ChalkbeatTN,

“Our local school systems’ budgets are facing tremendous challenges. In our opinion, the state could have done more to address funding in the [Basic Education Program] for schools in this budget, even as they failed to address salary issues.”

On Wednesday, the HOUSE had passed a version of the budget that included a $1000 bonus for teachers. Unfortunately, the devil was in the details and those details led to the Senate refusing to include the provision in the approved final budget.

Earlier in the day, Governor Lee had warned Tennesseans on what to expect as the state was facing an income shortfall approaching one billion dollars due to plunging tax revenues. While the state budget is extremely disappointing, at least legislators are aware that we are in the midst of a pandemic and as a result are facing a financial crisis. Nashville council members continue to be in denial over that fact. While across the country, municipalities and school districts are slashing budgets, the music city is handing out raises.

Much has been made of Nashville historically low property tax rates and the failure to raise taxes in response over the past several years. Many have made the argument that had Nashville been more progressive and raised taxes in prior years, we would not need to raise them so drastically this year. That’s a disingenuous argument.

A look at the last two decades reveals Nashville’s practice of spending every new dime received becomes apparent. Nashville has been so hell-bent on building and enticing in order to become an “IT” city that we invested every dime and borrowed a few extra, to reach that promised land while putting little aside in reserve. We did so at the expense of the people that make the city run and with little concern about the future. Had the city raised taxes in previous years, that money would already be accounted for in new spending, which translates to no additional monies to offset the potential $300 million in lost sales tax revenues. Thus a large property tax would still be required.

All those people out there arguing over the need to raise property taxes are not doing so in an effort to build up the city’s rainy day fund. Their demand to raise property taxes all come accompanied by a laundry list of increased spending. A closer look at the Mendes budget shows that only $3,400,000 of the new revenue is designated for the rainy day fund. In that light, it’s clear that over the next couple of years, if we are to make Nashville fiscally sound, we’ll be facing a series of property tax increases. Today, Nashville’s property tax rate may be substantially lower than the other four major cities in Nashville, odds are in 5 years that argument won’t hold true.

Mendes himself acknowledges such in a blog post following the passing of his budget,

Next year will be a difficult budget process again. The WeGo transit system is using $20.5 million of one-time federal relief funds to operate this year. Also, Metro is delaying a bond issuance for capital needs (about $35 million of new bond debt costs) into FY22. This means that the first $55.5 million of new revenue in FY22 is already spoken for a year in advance. As difficult as this budget season has been, it should be thought of as the beginning of a several year process to get Metro on solid financial footing.

Over the last month, the worst kept secret in town is Mendes’s aspirations as a future mayoral candidate. To be honest, he’s head and shoulders above the current crop of contenders and I definitely appreciate his efforts at transparency, but I would point out that his budget offers evidence of his future aspirations. Take a look and see where funding was restored after Mayor Cooper proposed cutting it and you’ll see a list of future political influencers. Some of which just makes me shake my head.

Take, for example, the $150K designated to Nashville Public Education Foundation, a private advocacy group that works to influence school policy while remaining unaccountable to Nashville voters. Granted, they’ve been a much more public education friendly organization since Katie Cour took over as Executive Director for Shannon Hunt, but still, I question the need to fund them with tax dollars while so many Nashville citizens remain unemployed.

It’s also worth noting that NPEF has in the past paid it’s Executive Director a salary of $250K plus, Cour, again to her credit, has negotiated a salary significantly lower at $170K while focusing more on the needs of students and families. Their independent study was essential to the awakening of the need for increased teacher compensation. Still, it remains, that the Mendes, and Cooper budgets both propose to use money by raising taxes on property owners – many of whom are out of work – and giving it to a private entity. It’s not my intention to single out NPEF and I do appreciate Cour’s commitment to public education, similar cases exist with many of the other “non-profits” receiving funding from the tax increase. Both Opportunity Now and the GRAD program benefit greatly from the increase in property taxes.

Meanwhile, nowhere is additional money budgeted for the increased costs of opening schools due to the COVID crisis. Apparently, we are just going to wing those costs. More on that in a minute.

As part of the budget that was passed this week, At-large Councilmember Zulfat Suara was successful in rerouting school district savings to a contingency fund for teacher raises. What that means is the council granted MNPS the ability to go into their fund balance and take out $8 million in order to fund a 1% COLA raise and reinstate step increases as long as such action doesn’t reduce the district’s rainy day budget below the minimum of 3%. If this sounds familiar it should, because it is exactly what was done back in December to make sure that the raises promised by outgoing Mayor Briley were funded. It’s why MNPS started this year’s budget process requiring an automatic $15 million increase.

That’s the problem with funding reoccurring expenditures from non-reoccurring revenue streams. That’s part of a strategy though. Get the items on the books, because once on the books it’s virtually impossible to remove them, thus making a stronger argument for future tax increases.

Here are a few more wrinkles to that teacher pay plan. MNPS’s fund balance is currently at 4% and due to nutritional services facing roughly a million dollar shortage due to costs associated with feeding families this spring, it’s not assured that granting the step increases won’t drop us below 3%. Some of the money needed to make up that shortfall may come from CARES money, but, keep in mind, there are no guarantees with the federal government and they move at their own pace. So if and when that reimbursement shows up is anyone’s guess.

Odds are that this year’s nutrition department costs will also be much higher than in past years. Depending on the rate of economic recovery, it is not out of the question to expect them to double.  Where is that money going to come from?

Further lost in the shuffle is that MNPS still needs to cut $7.5 million from their proposed budget. Yes, Mendes’s budget increases funding by $7.75 million, but the budget submitted by MNPS came with a $15 million dollar deficit. Where will those cuts come from? Certainly not from central office where instead of decreasing positions, Dr. Battle is either maintaining or growing the employment roster. We just hired a Director of Equity and Diversity with no experience with schools and gave them a $155k annual paycheck. Meanwhile other school districts in the country are asking superintendents to take pay cuts and they are accepting the requests. Not us, we are doing it the Nashville way.

This budget year finds me in strange territory. For a decade, I’ve been arguing for increased teacher compensation and I still feel that it is essential, but not if it ends up costing people jobs, and is unsustainable. With the Suara proposal that’s a real possibility and actuality. You can not fund recurring costs with non-recurring revenue streams. It’s not sustainable.  When it comes to teachers, we can not continue to give with one hand and take with the other.

Furthermore what happens if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse? How will the district keep everyone employed while meeting its increased financial obligation amidst failing to meet revenue projections?

Yep, I think it is time to break out that map and maybe head back to the Cracker Barrel.

COVID BLUES

As we get closer and closer to August and the proposed start of school, it becomes more and more clear to me that schools will be opening in the Fall. Will that be the prudent move? Probably not, but the economy can not be fully engaged without schools being open. So the dollar will trump safety.

In light of that, everybody and their brother have rushed into the void to try and submit their plan of what schools should like when they open. The only thing missing from these proposals, is where is the funding coming from? I’ve yet to see a plan that includes a line item budget with it. We continue to hold a conversation about reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic while teachers are expected to pay for hand sanitizer out of their pockets.

The closest I have seen to a plan with a budget attached is probably Haywood Schools where they are moving to an alternate schedule and have designated funding to pay for the change through a combination of CARES money and tapping their fund balance. Luckily they have a healthy fund balance, so they can do so without incurring too much risk. Most districts are not that lucky.

Initially I put my estimates at reopening costs between $30 and $50 million in additional funds. Funds that would cover PPE’s, building alterations, cleaning supplies, additional staffing, transportation. A recent article in US News is making me rethink that estimate. According to the American Federation of Teachers, average school will need an additional $1.2 million, or $2,300 per student, to open its doors. For MNPS, that translates into roughly an additional $207,000,000. Even if you slice that in half, it is a daunting figure. Per US News,

Baked into the AFT’s more severe analysis, which more than quadruples previous estimates, is funding for instructional staff, distance learning, before- and after-school care, transportation, personal protective equipment, cleaning and health supplies, health staffing, custodial and cleaning staff, meeting children’s social and emotional needs and additional academic support for students.

A Politico article paints an even more sobering picture.

“I mean, it’s like it’s a lose-lose situation,” said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. ”You have parents that are demanding the schools to open. And then you have parents that are saying, we’re not going to send our kids to school. You have teachers that are saying we’re not going to go back to work. Districts that are saying, with these budget cuts, we’re going to have to lay off teachers.

The confusion can’t all be laid at the feet of local districts. They are getting little meaningful guidance from the USDOE and even less from the state. This week TN Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn got around to naming members and setting the agenda for the state’s COVID-19 Child Well Being Taskforce. Per the press release,

“The Child Wellbeing Task Force will work to ensure that the needs of Tennessee children are met during and after extended periods away from school, and to empower local communities to meaningfully engage in ways that support child wellbeing,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “I am encouraged by these dedicated individuals from across the state who have stepped up to serve.” 

Raise your hand if you are shocked to find out if there are more legislators on this task force than teachers? Child development specialists are outnumbered by foundation directors. Schwinn proposes to support child wellbeing while not including the very people that engage more than anyone else in the state with children and the first meeting isn’t until July. How is that supposed to work?

Due to this lack of meaningful guidance from the state, districts are being left to fend for themselves.

I find the words of Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, especially concerning, “We are going to learn as we go,” he said. “It’s a matter of trying some of these things out and finding what will work.”

That is my fear. MNPS will open schools with no clear plans let alone budget numbers attached to them. Instead, we will collect our supposed pots of money – national, state, and local – and spend out of those just enough to get started with little thought towards future financial implications. For example, PPE’s should probably be considered a recurring expense. The requirement may be lower next year but it is hard to envision the near future that doesn’t include a need. The need will be here long after the one time state and local funding is gone. But once again, we will likely use non-recurring funds.

These week MnpS’s district leaders conducted a Principal Virtual Conference in an effort to prepare for the upcoming school year. Unfortunately, by all accounts, little time was spent crafting plans for next year’s opening and instead, time was focused on the typical topics of SEL, Inquiry Cycle, and textbook acquisition. Dr. Battle herself was not slated to address the principals until 11:30 today. Huh? Not only waiting until the last day but the last speaker before lunch? What page of the leadership handbook is that on?

Pretty safe to say, we might want to pull out that map and figure out where we are going to go from here.

SHORTCUTS

Congratulations are in order for a Whites Creek High School educator. Grade 10-12 teacher and Robotics Club staffer Shasta Charlton was selected among thousands of eligible teachers, recognized for going above and beyond to inspire her students to build skills in computer science and to promote diversity and inclusion in the field, in their classroom and beyond.  Included with the award is a prize package valued at over $50,000 to benefit her students and their school. Amazon surprised Ms. Charlton with the news of the award by Zoom – check out the video of that surprise moment.

Some more MNPS principal announcements are expected to roll out in the next couple of days. Among those will be some familiar names. Names that used to be in the upper hierarchy of MNPS, but are now returning to individual school leadership roles. While it’s good news that buildings are finally getting highly qualified leaders, this years process has been one that took to long and lacked real transparency. Advisory panels should only be convened if the results from such panels are actually going to be considered. It is well within Dr. Battle’s powers to appoint leaders as she sees fit, but by the same token, an effort should be taken to respect stakeholders’ time and that was not a consideration this year. As they say in baseball though…there is always next year.

This week brought some clarity to the process to fill the school board seat vacated by Anne Shepherd due to her untimely passing. The Metro Council will appoint someone to the seat who will serve until November 22. The semi-permanent occupant who will serve out the remainder of Shepherd’s term will be decided by the November ballot. Notable names indicating a desire to be considered are former HR specialist Scott Lindsey, former MNEA head Erik Huth, former Hillwood Principal Steve Chauncy, and former teacher and literacy coach Stephanie Bradford. All of the candidates bring exceptional qualifications to the table but with Jill Speering rolling off the board, I personally welcome the opportunity to replace her with another literacy specialist. So Bradford is currently atop my favorite list.

 

Tuesday will be a board meeting. On the agenda is a resolution supporting the Nashville Plan for the reopening of schools 2020-2021. We’ll discuss this a little more come Monday but a perfunctory reading indicates an omission of the Mayor’s involvement in the plan, a potentially large abdication of school board power, and don’t you usually approve these kinds of things before announcing them to the public, instead of after? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That’s it for now.  If you’re looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to deliver is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is non-existent. Not begging, just saying.

Make sure you don’t leave before answering this week’s poll questions.



Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. The property tax fix was needed for the last 3 years, since the massive cuts triggered by council inaction. Glad we (Nashville) have stepped up, even as each year of delay surely upped the increase necessary to get back to wholeness of our civic budget.

    The salary of the CEO of NPEF was quite flooring. Why is it not half that, say $125K? I sometimes wonder if , at these $$$ levels, our non-profits tilt more towards supporting their own budgets, and lose sight of original mission.

    NPEF has helped leverage conversation after conversation around public education in Nashville.

    I am so past wanting yet another conversation. Can’t we _do_ something instead of talking again?

    I respect that others feel a new conversation is just the right tonic – but wish it could be otherwise:

    Click to access NPEF-iniquitiesBrief.pdf

    In the aftermath of George Floyd, and the renewed calls for equity, one would think the first order of business MNPS would be to close obviously discriminating the Meigs autopathway to Hume Fogg. My history dive revealed that auto-pathway to be quite responsible for undermining support of integrated middle schools across town. It serves no academic or integrating purpose whatsoever.

    Oh well, I suppose it always has been easier to hold conversations, even to yell, and to scream – than actually change the structure of the district for the good of all taxpayers, and students.

  2. I LOVED reading maps.

    Sent from my iPhone, which inserts all kinds of weird punctuation and such just to keep you on your toes

    >

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