The Metro school board is battening down the hatches as it heads into the final two weeks of discussions over next year’s school budget. Metro school director Pedro Garcia’s proposal to close seven small schools to trim $25 million from next year’s budget has been met with irate objections from parents and teachers and left school board members exasperated with a budget process that they say has them mining for big-ticket items to cut to save money.
The sales tax increase didn’t pass, and Mayor Purcell hasn’t indicated there will be another bump in school funding like there was this year, so the school district says it needs to make cuts to balance the tug of war between the revenue stream and recurring costs. Board finance chair Kathy Nevill says the issue of required expenses creates an intractable problem. The school district’s mandatory costs for things such as pensions rises at nearly five percent a year, but its revenues are projected to rise at only about 2 percent a year, which in budget-speak is considered “normal.” Students don’t want their art or PE classes cut, teachers don’t want to lose jobs, parents don’t want to close schools, but Nevill counters that Metro voters don’t want to raise the sales tax, the teachers’ union won’t make concessions, and the only guidance from the holders of the purse strings—the Metro Council—has been in the form of Carolyn Baldwin Tucker’s suggestions to lose things like special education (which is illegal) or all building maintenance supplies (which is fine if broken toilets or dirty classrooms are deemed acceptable.)
Closing the seven small schools—Gateway, Bass, Cora Howe, Rose Park, Litton, Joelton Middle and Jones—would save the district $4.6 million and eliminate about 90 positions. Parents whose children attend these elementary and middle schools have been crying foul over the seeming targeting of minority and magnet schools. Gateway has about 50 percent minority enrollment, but the rest have at least 60 percent African American. The elementary magnet school, Jones Paideia, is over 93 percent black. One grandparent who spoke at the school board’s special meeting at Pearl Cohn in November says closing these schools is a way to eliminate low-scoring schools by spreading those students elsewhere throughout the system. True, this qualifies as a conspiratorial theory since Jones is one of the highest performing elementary schools in the district with 90 percent proficiency in math and 93 percent in reading.
But the grandmother hasn’t been the only one saying that the proposed closings are based on race. The Nashville Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sponsored a meeting Monday night at the 15th Avenue Baptist Church to express dismay on behalf of the African American community about the closures, and hopefully to find other alternatives. They want to delay the budget process to allow for more ideas to come forward, and want to address capacity issues by rezoning schools, rather than closing some.
So why close a school such as Jones that’s working for Nashville’s traditionally underserved black community? Well, as Kathy Nevill puts it, Metro either has to cut people or schools. Nevill says 88 percent of Metro’s schools budget every year is labor costs. The biggest chunk of proposed savings—$15 million—would come from eliminating nearly 400 teachers, guidance counselors, principals and custodians. But all the city has heard from the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA), the labor union for teachers, over the last few weeks is agitation about whether to mediate over teachers’ 3 percent raise, which they say the district promised them. The MNEA has been silent about the specter of losing more classrooms and the fact that those students would have to be absorbed into someone else’s class.
MNEA president Jayme Merritt says the school board and Garcia are jumping the gun. She says the board is “cutting a budget that doesn’t exist yet,” and that the board doesn’t have all the information on what the revenue streams or enrollment figures will look like. Merritt also calls the cuts “punitive to children” because “children do not vote.” Meaning students couldn’t have voted for the sales tax referendum that would have funded a 3 percent raise for teachers, among other things. Merritt is dismayed at a process she calls “backwards,” that cuts people instead of things.
Board chair Pam Garrett says the mayor and Metro Council “beat us up pretty good over excess capacity” during the last budget cycle. Now Garrett says the board is trying to address the issue and getting beat up all over again by the same council. Regardless of which way you flip the picture, the reality is that the school board has to recommend a budget that only has about $11 or $12 million worth of revenue growth, with about $25 million in recurring costs next year that have to be taken from somewhere. And this looks to be the same scenario for the next two years after that. Garrett sighs and says the cuts this year and the ones that are coming are eating away “what we’ve gained over the past few years.” Council member Tucker came back with a few more recommendations Monday night to both the council’s education committee and the NAACP to “apply the reductions that do not require school closings, rezoning students to various schools, nor major layoffs of teachers.” She advises the creation of a yearlong committee to address school rezoning with a report due next December, just in time for the 2007 budget crisis.
A frustrated Kathy Nevill says there is “lack of leadership” among city officials and the community, an indication that the debate over the school budget seems headed nowhere, or at least nowhere good.