NASHVILLE, TN — Mayor John Cooper announced Tuesday that teachers and support staff will get a 3% raise beginning in January. He wants to make it permanent but it’s not clear how given the state of Metro finances.
“I hope this announcement brings a little piece of mind as teachers head into a much deserved Thanksgiving holiday season,” Cooper said. He said the top priorities in his first budget would be educator and first responder pay.
“We’re going to have to work together to meet this commitment in the future but I’m confident that we’re up to that challenge. Cleaning up our finances and improving teacher pay are inherent in living up to our promises as a City,” Cooper said.
Metro schools will need $7.5 million dollars for the second half of this school year. Cooper said MNPS has $5 million in the bank and $2.5 million will come from an MDHA refinancing arrangement.
MDHA has some Tax Increment Financing loans with Regions Bank and negotiated a one-year moratorium on paying them back. That freed up $2.5 million for MNPS. That is a one-time fix.
“This is a terrible idea,” said At Large Councilman Steve Glover. He said drawing down MNPS’s reserves is like taking money out of your savings account. Under state law, MNPS can’t go below 3% of its reserves for recurring expenses like teachers salaries. “How the state comptroller is okay with this is beyond me,” Glover said.
Although he is the resident council curmudgeon on fiscal matters, Glover supports higher pay for teachers and first responders. “We aren’t going to cut expenses. We’re just going to keep on spending like we always do,” he complained.
“What they’re doing is setting people up for a tax increase,” he added.
“We do have the controller’s letter.” Cooper said. “What we were able to do is to do it this year and this is our commitment to making it recurring and with that I’m going to need the help of all the council people in this room and to work with the school board very closely to get this done and for the future,” Cooper said.
Metro is in dire financial straights and two weeks ago State Controller Justin Wilson told the City Council he would take over the city’s finances if they and Mayor Cooper could not close a $45 million budget gap. He gave them a February deadline to balance the city’s checkbook.
The Metro’s 2020 budget is about $2.33 billion. Thirty-nine percent goes to education, twenty-one percent to pubic safety, and fourteen percent to debt service.
For years the city has spent beyond it means on expensive projects, borrowed money to pay for them, and sold assets like the old Nashville Convention Center for below market-rate prices. Nashville’s free-wheeling and free-spending days are about to come to an abrupt end. Cooper campaigned against Metro’s profligate ways and vowed to change them.
Nashville’s much-touted growth has brought great wealth to private developers and commercial interests, but the city is mired in $4.6 billion in general obligation bond debt and it will have to pay $337 million to service that debt this year. That’s ten times more that the shortfall in the School District’s budget proposal of $954 million for 2019-20 school year. Schools got $914 million.
Of the $914 million for MNPS, charter schools got about $125 million, or 13.6%. Governor Bill Lee’s controversial voucher bill would take more children out of public schools to attend private religious schools with taxpayers’ money.
Meanwhile, Metro’s classrooms are overcrowded, school kids don’t have enough textbooks, and many teachers are working two jobs to make ends meet. While local officials deserve much of the blame for that, less state and federal money for education hasn’t helped any.
In fact, public education is in trouble all over the country. In 2018 more teachers walked off the job in North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Washington, Alaska, and West Virginia than in any year since 1986. This year teacher strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles drew national headlines. Compared with other workers, teacher pay has steadily gone down hill since 1980, according to Labor Department data.
“Teachers and principals and our other employees don’t come to this profession for the love of money but for the love of students and their community. They are public servants through and through,” said Interim Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle.
School Board Chair Anna Shepherd told the Tribune about an email she received from a math teacher at McGavock High School. “I have one set of textbooks for all of my students. I have 30 calculators of which 18 are working. The desks in my classroom are so rickety they are dangerous for the children to sit in. The white boards are so wavy I can’t display anything on them because you can’t read it. I have already gone through the entire box of paper I was given at the beginning of school so this weekend I have to go buy another box of paper and I have already spent over $350 of my own money and we’re talking the end of the first month of school,“ Shepherd said.
Poor teacher pay has ripple effects, according to Amanda Kail, founder of “Red for Ed” in Nashville. The group is part of a national movement of teachers fighting for better wages.
Kail said unfilled teacher positions means students get split up and spread out to other classrooms. Unfilled bus driver positions means drivers have to do more routes and classes start late. After school kids stay late waiting for buses to take them home.
“Teacher shave to stay late after school and that’s uncompensated time. We get paid for seven and a half hours. Anything beyond that, we’re just donating so teachers have donated quite a bit of their time to this district. It’s time we fixed that problem,” Kail said.
Kail said Metro teachers are getting ready to renegotiate their contract with MNPS.
“One of our biggest asks is that we want mandatory step raises every years because that what got us into this mess in the first place. That’s why salaries are so low because they stopped giving those cost of living increase every year.”
District 9 Councilwoman Tonya Hancock is on the City Council Education Committee. Teachers are getting an online survey next week about textbooks and school supplies. Hancock said the survey will ask every Metro teacher how many textbooks they have, whether they use them, what shape are they in, and do they have enough of them.
“We’re also tracking how much money the teachers spend in their classrooms not only that’s provided by the school district but that is out of pocket or grant funded so that we can determine how much would be an adequate budget for the teacher schools supplies so they don’t have to pay out of picket,” Hancock said.