Haslam to hold peace talks with school systems threatening lawsuits

Gov. Bill Haslam says he may meet as early as next week with directors of the state’s four biggest school systems as three of them — in Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties — actively consider suing the state over education funding.

From the Chattanooga TFP:

“I understand their concerns,” the Republican told reporters Wednesday. “If you remember, the small schools threatened to sue us last year. I’m not certain it’s so much of a large school, small school issue. It’s how we fund education in Tennessee.”

Haslam added that “I would argue we’ve had a good track record of doing that through some tough times.” He said his proposed budget provides $100 million for teacher pay raises and nearly $50 million to keep up with requirements of the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula.

Urban schools argue, however, that they, their students and local taxpayers are getting the short end of the funding stick from the formula. An effort that partially addressed their concerns — dubbed BEP 2.0 — was partially implemented in 2007 by then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who pushed a 42-cent-per-pack hike on cigarettes to fund half of it.

The rest of BEP 2.0’s funding, however, never came through. And so, school boards in Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties have been rattling their swords.

School board members for Metro Nashville Public Schools, also one of the state’s biggest systems, decided Tuesday to hold off on actively exploring a lawsuit for 30 days after Metro Schools Director Jesse Register called it the “wrong way” to address the situation.

Register formerly served as Hamilton County Schools director until he left under fire in 2005. Register has recently experienced rocky relations with some Metro Nashville school board members and has opted not to seek a contract extension.

Speaking Wednesday, Haslam said resolving BEP formula issues “is not a matter of shifting [money], it’s a matter of having the funds to do it.

“It’s not like we’re not being cognizant of the needs for K-12, if you look at how we’ve funded that compared to others [departments],” the governor said. He noted his administration has worked hard to cut spending elsewhere to help K-12 education.

…”(T)that’s the way people feel about government period, right? We need more money for schools, we need more money for caseworkers, we need more money for etc., etc. Our job is to take the resources that we have and allocate that in the very best way that we can… We can only spend the money that we have. It’s why we work so hard to restructure the budget all the time with cuts to other programs.”