Editor’s note: Metro schools and City Hall have been closed for two months. Teachers are working from home using the Internet to give lessons and assign projects to their students. Mayor John Cooper has been holding remote daily press briefings with health officials and other city leaders. The courts and Metro Council have continued to work using virtual technology to hear cases and hold meetings to carry on in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Here are three recent noteworthy news items. 

Judge Strikes Down School Vouchers

NASHVILLE, TN — Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin struck down the state’s private school voucher law, known as the Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program. 

The voucher program was originally intended to begin in the 2021-2022 school year, but Gov. Bill Lee pushed the timeline ahead so parents in Davidson and Shelby counties could send their children to private schools using public education funds.

The voucher program was a controversial idea and barely passed the state legislature in May 2019. Now it is dead. Martin ruled the program violated the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing laws that apply to specific counties–but not others–without their approval.

Martin ruled that the voucher program violated Education and Equal Protection provisions and the Appropriation of Public Moneys provision.  The ruling enjoins the state from implementing the voucher program but the Lee administration is appealing the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) tweeted his approval of the court’s ruling: “Vouchers = bad policy, bad politics, bad budgeting, and now bad law.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) issued a statement following the decision. 

“Public school tax dollars are meant for public schools, to serve every kid with a high quality education regardless of their zip code. Private school vouchers break that shared promise by defunding our neighborhood schools, student by student and brick by brick. That’s why so many school districts wanted no part of this faulty program,” Akbari said.

Judge Sets August Court Date for Fairgrounds Trial

NASHVILLE, TN -– Chancellor Ellen Hobbes Lyle set August 10 to begin a 4-day trial to decide the fate of the State Fairgrounds. Mayor John Cooper caved into pressure from the soccer lobby, state officials, and the Chamber of Commerce on February 10. Cooper announced he would support the project if the Ingram group kicked in $54 million and pay for any cost overruns with the stadium’s construction. The announcement gave a green light to the MLS stadium ending a 3-month waiting game as Cooper sat on the fence about the project. Three previous mayors were big boosters of developing the Fairgrounds but a 2011 referendum and a lawsuit filed by Save Our Fairgrounds in 2018 is holding up stadium construction.

Plaintiffs say the soccer deal violates the City Charter and will harm flea market vendors, racetrack operations, and kill the state fair. The Tennessee State Fair Commission voted in March 2019 to start looking for an alternate site for the State Fair if the stadium is built. (see Commission Tells State Fair to Find New Home, Tennessee Tribune, March 21, 2019).

While Lyle delayed the trial giving plaintiffs more time to prepare and take depositions, she denied five plaintiff motions that augur well for Nashville SC and Metro which are now on the same side in the case.

Hobbes ordered that preparations be made to take remote testimony from Congressman John Rose (R, Cookeville) if he could not return to Nashville to testify. Rose is a former state agriculture commissioner. He succeeded Diane Black representing Tennessee’s 6th District in January 2019. He has been president of the Tennessee State Fair Association since 2010 and is considered an expert witness. He is expected to testify that you can’t hold a decent state fair in what amounts to a parking lot.

Cooper Presents 2021 Operating Budget

 NASHVILLE, TN — “There is no cavalry coming to the rescue,” said Mayor John Cooper last week as he presented a $2.5 billion dollar FY21 budget. He predicted that despite $122 million in CARES Act relief, Metro will lose almost a half billion dollars in revenue over the next 15 months.

Cooper said that city revenues in 4th quarter of FY20 fell by $216 million because of the March 3rd tornado and costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mayor presented a crisis budget describing, in his words, “how deep the hole is that we’re in and how we can get out”. It’s going to be painful.

Despite spending cuts of $234 million projected for next year, Metro will still be $330 million short in operating funds. “This will be the greatest financial challenge this city has faced in our lifetimes,” Cooper said.

His proposed budget keeps education, public health and safety funding more or less at current levels, does not lay off city employees, and replenishes some of Metro’s missing cash reserves. 

Noting that the city can’t print or borrow money, Cooper said Metro is unable to pay its workers more, has to cancel step increases and longevity pay, and halt capital improvement projects.

Cooper said all Metro departments would feel the pain by having discretionary funding cut in half with the exception of the Barnes Fund. It was cut $5 million last year. He said there was no alternative to the sweeping and rather blunt knife to cut expenses or the city would have to begin massive layoffs soon.

“There is no way to replace more than $300 million in missing revenue without sharply increasing property taxes,” Cooper added. The property tax increase of $1 will raise an estimated $332 million. At $4.15 per $100 of assessed value, Metro’s tax rate will still be lower than rates in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis. 

But with housing prices so high in Nashville, that means an increase of $750 for a home worth $300,000.