Blog

Do We Test Too Much?

Despite recently announced reductions in state-mandated standardized testing, some still believe Tennessee tests our students too much.

State Assessment Task Force member and Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead suggested as much at a recent committee meeting:

“When we look at the states we’re chasing and trying to catch on NAEP and move up the ladder, I’d guess there’s none that test as much as (Tennessee does),” he said. “More tests are not going to help us catch them.”

Winstead said time spent testing has increased dramatically over the last five years, and this year’s reductions just bring the state back to a previous level of over-testing, rather than solving the problem.

What do you think? Is there still too much testing in Tennessee? What alternatives might help us assess learning while striking the right balance? Let us know!

 

What's Up With Testing?

The TNReady test in 2015-16 was a complete disaster.  Now, we're in a new year and the state has selected a new vendor to administer TNReady. But, what will testing look like this year?

We'll do our best to keep you posted on what's happening with state tests. But, for starters, here's the text of an email Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent to educators to explain important changes for this year. Here's the big one: The test will take less time. Yes, it's still a lot, especially for younger children, but the total time spent testing will be less -- and that's a move in the right direction.

Here's what McQueen had to say:

We’ve reduced testing time. In grades 3–8, students will have tests that are 200–210 minutes shorter than last year; in high school, most individual End of Course assessments have been shortened by 40-120 minutes.

  • We will phase in online tests over multiple years. For the upcoming school year, the state assessments for grades 3–8 will be administered via paper and pencil. However, the department will work closely with Questar, our new testing vendor, to provide an online option for high school math, ELA, and U.S. history & geography exams if both schools and the testing platform demonstrate early proof of successful online administration. Even if schools demonstrate readiness for online administration, districts will still have the option to choose paper and pencil assessments for high school students this year. Biology and chemistry End of Course exams will be administered via paper and pencil.
  • In the coming school year, the state will administer a social studies field test, rather than an operational assessment, for students in grades 3–8. This will take place during the operational testing window near the end of the year. Additionally, some students will participate in ELA and/or U.S. history field tests outside the operational testing window.

Again, this is the beginning of what we hope will be more information on what to expect in terms of TNReady and testing this school year.

We'll update you as more information comes available.

They're Coming

"We've seen a 3 point increase in graduation rates, we've seen growth on our ACT average. We've been scoring straight As on the state report card. There's a lot that goes into those results. But, it's clear to me that we wouldn't be where we are without the work of Strong Schools." ~Del Phillips, Director of Sumner County Schools

But there's a new group in town and they want to change all that. Oh... they say they want to make our schools better and stronger, but facts don't lie. And the facts are that when this national organization gets involved in local elections, the results are devastating to public schools, including Williamson County, TN.

A Facebook post by Americans For Prosperity - TN: Members of AFP, SURG and anti public school activists from Williamson County meeting in Hendersonville, TN.

A Facebook post by Americans For Prosperity - TN: Members of AFP, SURG and anti public school activists from Williamson County meeting in Hendersonville, TN.

Over the summer, AFP began holding meetings in Sumner County. The first, a meeting with AFP, SURG (those that opposed us so vocally during the 2014 elections) and activists that worked successfully to overturn one of the strongest School Boards in Tennessee, Williamson County, to talk about 2016 School Board races in Sumner County.

In Jefferson County and Douglas County Colorado, AFP spent heavily to help elect school board members who promoted a pro-voucher, anti-teacher agenda. Teachers and parents fled those school systems as the AFP experiment failed. It has been complete chaos.

Not content with ruining two districts in Colorado, AFP also got behind candidates for School Board in nearby Williamson County. The outside group spent nearly $50,000 on local school board candidates. Once elected, those candidates nearly drove Director of Schools (and Tennessee Superintendent of the Year) Mike Looney to leave -- and there are constant battles over side issues that prevent discussions of more serious, urgent issues. 

AFP has deep pockets, spending tens of millions across the U.S. Their goal is to gain control of local governments to further their agenda. As stated earlier, the organization spent nearly $50,000 on a handful of School Board Candidates in Williamson County in one election. In comparison, Strong Schools spent $13,000 on 21 candidates over a Primary and General election.

With School Board elections coming up next year, it is vital that we are prepared for the influx of cash and volunteers. We can't let AFP and outside interests obliterate all the advances we have made.  

So the question is, what are you willing to do about it? Strong Schools has many opportunities coming up to help make sure that a national outside organization with an anti public school agenda doesn't win.

Join the discussion in our Facebook group here.

Sign up for our email updates here.

And to find out how AFP is causing chaos in our nation's pubic schools, click on the links below.

Let's do this!

Koch brothers’ foundation vows to redouble spending on education issues in TN 

Colorado Students Walk Out 

Koch Outfit Leads Charge of Outside Groups into Colorado School Board Fight

Fewer Fees, More Resources

Our schools are taking an important step forward this year. The school system budget includes the elimination of all class fee requests for grades K-8! The amount of funds sent directly to classrooms to provide resources for student learning has increased dramatically over the past two budget cycles.

We have more work to do, but this is a positive step and proof that hard work and focus pays off!


Lies, Damn Lies, and Jim Vaughn

Recently, County Commissioner Jim Vaughn wrote a letter which appeared in the Gallatin News and Hendersonville Star News as well as on his Facebook page.

The letter claims that if the current school system budget is funded, it will require a tax increase -- if not this year, then next.

Vaughn states that he was surprised by last year's tax increase -- but he fails to mention that he missed County Commission meetings on September 2nd, 8th, and 15th of 2014 -- meetings at which budget issues were discussed and the school system's budget approved. That's right, Jim Vaughn didn't vote on last year's school system budget, but he sure complained about it.

Now, he's claiming that this year's school system budget will lead to a tax increase. Maybe he doesn't understand the budgeting process because, as he told all assembled at the June 15th County Commission meeting, he hadn't attended a single meeting of the Commission's Budget Committee or of the School Board where the budget was discussed. He told his fellow Commissioners he was confused and needed 10 days to review the budget before he could vote on it. Not surprisingly, his fellow Commissioners, many of whom had done their due diligence and attended key meetings as well as studied the budget, didn't take him up on the offer to delay the budget vote for 10 days so Vaughn could catch up.

What he also fails to state in his rant about reserve funds is that this year's school budget uses $1 million less from reserve funds than last year's. He doesn't tell readers that year after year, Sumner County Schools, through careful planning and conservative fiscal management, has significant funds returned and available to be used for the next year's budget. Vaughn should know this, because he previously served on the Commission's Budget Committee.

Vaughn asks readers "how much is enough?" A tired refrain that reminds me of the time he wrote last year that the schools were doing just fine and didn't need any more investment. He was wrong then, and he's wrong now.  Jim Vaughn consistently fails to attend key meetings about Sumner County's budgets and then proceeds to write articles deliberately misrepresenting the facts so he can score political points.

Interestingly, Vaughn did attend some recent budget meetings. They were meetings for the City of Hendersonville's budget. That budget, which included a nearly 11 cent tax increase, resulted in a pay raise and improved working conditions for Jim Vaughn -- an employee of the City of Hendersonville. It's worth noting that the raise that benefitted Vaughn and others added nearly a full cent -- that's almost 10% -- to the tax increase the city recently passed. Vaughn will see his salary raised by around 3.5% while most school system employees will see a raise of just 2%. Jim Vaughn is more than happy to see taxes raised so he can feather his own nest, but tells his constituents to watch out for the County Commission and some phantom tax increase. Vaughn plays the role of protector of the taxpayer while at the same time enjoying the benefits of the tax increase that pays his salary.

Jim Vaughn is encouraging citizens to attend the County Commission meeting on Monday night so they can protect their interests. I agree. Citizens should attend Monday night's meeting and ask Jim Vaughn: Why don't you go to budget meetings? Why don't you support investment in our schools? Why don't you understand the budget process? Why are you misrepresenting the current budget situation? Why is a tax increase to raise your salary ok, but one that invests in schools not ok?

It's time Jim Vaughn was faced with the truth. His game of missing meetings and then complaining is tiresome, and residents of the 6th County Commission district and all of Sumner County deserve better.

The 2015-16 Proposed Schools Budget

Today, Director of Schools Del Phillips presented his balanced budget proposal to the School Board at a non-voting work session.

Here are some key highlights of the proposal:

  • The elimination of school fees for grades K-8
  • An increase in the instructional allocation for schools -- from $34 per student last year to $54 per student this year
  • An approximately 2% raise for most teachers and school employees
  • The addition of 50 new part-time interventionists -- certified teachers who will provided targeted instruction through the RTI2 framework
  • The additional staffing needed for the opening of William Burrus Elementary
  • The addition of school nurses to improve the nurse to student ratio from 1:1211 to 1:1054

This budget represents another step forward for Sumner County Schools. It eliminates K-8 school fees, gives employees a raise, adds key staff, and provides additional classroom resources.

In addition to the base raise for classified employees, the budget includes a range adjustment for bus drivers and custodians, who will see an increase of between $1.00 and $1.55 an hour. This is designed to keep our system competitive.

While there is much to applaud in this budget, the comparisons to other neighboring systems make clear we have more to do.  For example, while this budget proposes the addition of 50 part-time interventionists, Williamson, Wilson, and Rutherford counties have an average of 48 full-time interventionists.

When it comes to school nurses, the proposed budget would allow us to improve our ratio by a reduction of over 150 students, our ratio will still be one nurse for every 1054 students. Neighboring counties average one nurse for every 854 students.

Our School Board, in cooperation with the County Commission, is digging out of a deep hole. For too long, parent fees and budget cuts were the norm. School Board meetings were focused on where to cut and what purchases to delay in order to function at acceptable capacity.

It's worth noting that both the County Commission's Budget Committee Chair and Education Committee Chair attended the budget presentation at the School Board. That's a new and welcome level of engagement by our County Commission.

And it should be mentioned that in the budget crisis of 2012, Strong Schools called on the Board and Commission to start the budget process earlier in order to allow more time for feedback and adjustments. This budget, presented in May, will avoid the crisis budgeting and last minute cuts of the past.

Our School Board and Dr. Phillips are to be commended for carefully and methodically digging their way out and pushing our school system forward.

As budgets like this year's become the norm, Sumner County Schools will continue on the path to building the excellent schools our community deserves.

 

What's the Deal, Del? A Q&A on Special Education

Sumner County Schools Pupil Services and Instruction Departments prepared the following answers to the questions submitted by Strong Schools.

First let’s start with who is eligible for special education services. A student may be eligible for services through an Individual Education Plan under the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and meeting TN Regulations for each disability category.   IDEA is a special education program.  A student may be eligible for modifications and accommodations through a 504 Plan under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Section 504 is a general education program.    Under both programs, the individual needs of a student with a disability drive the educational decisions at the school level.  The answers provided are general information about students with disabilities.

What kinds of changes are being made to the Sumner County Schools Special Education programs going into the new school year?

The biggest changes for next year are the location of classes.  In our county, space has traditionally been an issue.  Classes have been located in schools that had space available to use.  The completion of Dr. William Burrus Elementary in Hendersonville will provide an opportunity to move classes to the KDDC/WBE campus.  The needs of all special education students were reviewed to strategically move classes so students could attend or be closer to their school of zone.  This will allow many students to attend school with their neighbors and reduce the travel time of those students to their school. In total, six classes will be relocating next year.

Is there a push for more 504 plans as opposed to IEPs in Sumner County at this time?

Congress signed an amendment to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2008 which was effective January 1, 2009.  When regulations went into effect, it expanded the definition of disabilities.  With the expanded definition, there is an increase of students that might qualify for accommodations and/or modifications through a 504 Plan.

What is the federal and state financial allocation per 504 student and per IEP student?

There are no additional funds given to a school system for students on a 504 plan.  The federal funds awarded to each county for IDEA eligible students is reflected in the Sumner County Schools Federal Projects Budget posted on the SCS website which can be found here.  Federal funds are restricted for use on IDEA eligible students. 

What are the current statistics, county wide, on the number of students in each program?
IDEA Category Counts Dec. 2014: 

Age 3-21
Intellectual Disability   134
Hearing Impaired or Deaf     35
Speech or Language Impaired     1266
Vision Impaired or Blind     20
Emotionally Disturbed     99
Orthopedically Impaired     5
Other Health Impaired     694
Specific Learning Disability     1203
Deaf-Blind     1
Muti-Disabled     37
Autism     365
Traumatic Brain Injury     13
Developmental Delay     208

Additional TN Category Count in June 2014:

Intellectually Gifted     1066
Functionally Delayed     13

Total Special Ed Students     5159

Total number of students currently eligible for a 504 plan is:  611

What is RTI²?
The Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2) process has three tiers that build upon one another. Each tier provides more intensive levels of support.  Tier I includes high quality instruction for students in the general education classroom.  The school provides all students with access to high quality standards-based instruction in the general education classroom.  Tier II includes additional targeted instruction/interventions. The school provides interventions to small groups of students who need more support with reading and math skills. Tier III includes intensive interventions. The school provides intensive interventions to meet the individual needs of students with significant skill deficits in reading and math.  A student’s progress is monitored and results are used to make decisions about additional instruction and intervention.

The implementation of RTI2 may appear differently at each level and at each school due to the problem solving approach of RTI2. 

Why is RTI² not mandated at all schools?
The Sumner County School system is implementing RTI2 in Kindergarten through 8th grade.  RTI2 at the high school level will be piloted at select schools in the 2015-2016 school year.   Full implementation of RTI2 at the high school level will begin in the 2016-2017 school year.  This implementation phase-in is per the Tennessee Department of Education guidelines.  

Please address the Extended Resource program.  Why was it taken away? What is being offered as an alternative?
The decision to phase out the extended resource classes as a delivery for special education services was driven by two major changes in the educational landscape in Tennessee.  The first occurred in 2009 when the Tennessee Diploma Project and the Tennessee Legislature changed the requirements for graduation beginning with the graduating class of 2013.  In addition to adding the number of math and science credits needed for graduation, it changed how a special education student could graduate with a regular education diploma.  Prior to 2013, special education students could earn a regular education diploma by passing Gateway exams in English, algebra and biology along with mastering goals in their IEP.  Students must now earn a minimum of 22 credits.  This significant change forced us to change the delivery of services to help students meet that challenge. 

Gateway exams are no longer the “gateway” to graduation, and in actuality, they are no longer given.  Students must now earn a minimum of 22 credits in order to graduate. To obtain the needed 22 credits required to graduate, students must pass specific courses.  Although there are no longer Gateway exams, there are End-of-Course exams given in English I, English II, English III, Algebra I, Algebra II, Biology I, Chemistry, and US History – all required high school courses.  Per state law, Students would not be required to pass any one (1) examination, but instead would need to achieve a passing score for the course average in accordance with the State Board of Education’s uniform grading policy. The weight of the end-of-course examination on the student’s second semester average is twenty-five percent (25%).

As one can easily see, not only the requirements, but the stakes, have greatly increased for students.  Therefore, it is imperative that they be educated with their peers while receiving additional support from special education teachers.

The second change occurred on July 1, 2014 with the State required implementation of RTI² in general education.   Tier I includes high quality standards based instruction for all students in the general education classroom.   Previously, special education teachers in Sumner County’s ERC classes were trying to cover the standards for multiple grades while also providing the most intensive level of skills based intervention.  With RTI2 in place, special education teachers can focus solely on intensive skills-based intervention that will help a student succeed during the Tier I instruction they receive from their classroom teacher.  Students can also receive support during Tier 1 instruction though accommodations, modifications or inclusion support to help students access the general curriculum.

Since the law changed in July 2014 regarding dyslexia, what steps has Sumner County taken to ensure that teachers of children with dyslexia are properly trained, as will the county train personnel in early identification of the varied types of dyslexia?

In 2014, Tennessee law was amended to include a working definition of dyslexia.  This amendment also recognized the need for training of K-12 teachers in the area of effective reading instruction for students with dyslexia or similar reading disorders.

The Special Education Department within SCS has a collaborative relationship with the Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia at MTSU.  This collaboration has allowed the department to stay abreast of current research in the field of dyslexia, including multisensory instructional methodology.  All special education teachers in Sumner County have access to research-based interventions appropriate for students with dyslexia (this includes Orton-Gillingham-based programs).  In addition, special education teachers receive training and in-classroom support from the Consulting Reading Teacher and Lead Educator assigned to the Special Education department.

Additional steps have been taken to provide regular education teachers with foundational reading training that specifically highlights phonological awareness and phonics instruction.  These components of reading instruction are critical for students with dyslexia and similar reading difficulties.  To date, approximately 150 teachers and lead educators have received training through state-provided foundational reading and intervention courses, with plans to extend this training to additional teachers in the 2015-16 school year. 

What programs are available at RT Fisher?  Is it strictly an alternative school or is there a separate special education program within its halls?

Two separate programs exist at RT Fisher:  1) a K-12 alternative school for Sumner County Schools and 2) a day treatment center for special education students with significant behavioral challenges.

The alternative school has general education teachers who are certified to teach core academic courses for students K-12 and special education teachers who are available to provide intensive interventions.  Related service providers are also able to provide the services in a student’s IEP such as Speech Language Therapy, Occupational or Physical Therapy.  Most students are assigned to the alternative school through a disciplinary hearing.  Some may be assigned upon enrollment if they are enrolling from another alternative school program or residential facility.

The special education day treatment program includes classes that are an extension of the BLAST Class (Behavior Learning and Social Skills Training) in elementary grades, Why We Try Programs in middle and high grades and Comprehensive Development Classes for students.  The controlled environment at RT Fisher allows for intensive interventions and focus on behaviors which may be unattainable on a large, traditional campus. These programs are supported by a school social worker for therapy and case management whose only assignment is RT Fisher.  All related services are provided as needed in the student’s IEP.

Staff working in the alternative school and the day treatment program has been trained in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention and are assisting students to gain the skills needed to be productive and contributing students at their school of zone.  The classes have a low pupil teacher ratio and space available to focus on unique needs of the student.  The staff members from RT Fisher coordinate a transition back to the students’ previous program to maximize success.

Will the county be changing the service days for children receiving services under an IEP for gifted in 2015-2016?
Suggested service time for gifted education in the elementary schools will be three times per week for 45 minute sessions each.  The middle school times are twice a week for 45 minute sessions, as well as a strong focus on consultation by the gifted education teachers with the regular education teachers to promote depth and complexity within the content areas.

Are there state mandates for special education that all schools must meet, and the schools themselves try to meet those mandates the best ways they can?  In other words, why is it so different from school to school?  I’ve heard of such varied SEARCH programs that are so different in time and scope than what my daughter is experiencing.

Tennessee’s State Department of Education relays suggested guidelines for gifted education with specific mandates only regarding the identification of intellectual giftedness.  School systems determine the method of delivering services for gifted needs.  Sumner County has suggested times for services; however, with the variety of needs across the county, the teachers have discretion within their classes while following our program goals.  Sumner County’s goals for gifted education include:

  • To develop critical, conceptual, and abstract thinking within content areas;
  • To develop creative problem-solving within content areas; and
  • To promote positive affective development.

Great News!

Monday night, the Sumner County Commission approved the purchase of land for a new school campus and approved a bond issue that will, among other things, fund renovation and building projects at schools all over our county. 

THAT'S BIG NEWS!

A solid majority on the County Commission approved both measures.  It's a sign that our county leaders are finally focused forward. 

Sumner County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Tennessee. Now, our leadership is catching up -- planning ahead for growth and investing in our schools. 

In the recent past, Sumner County leaders waited until schools were overcrowded, dotted campuses with portable tin can classrooms, and then paid a premium for land for a new school -- only to see it open already overcrowded. 

The price paid for the land at the proposed new school campus is less than half the cost per acre as the price paid for the land at the new Burrus Elementary. 

Buying now rather than in five or seven years will both save taxpayers money AND ensure we're not caught surprised by growth. 

There are still some on the County Commission who'd rather not move forward. They have their supporters, those who say what we have now is enough. Here are a few of their objections from their comments Monday night.

-Schools don't need functioning HVAC systems

-Sending kids to class in portable tin cans year after year is perfectly       
  
fine
-Repair of leaking roofs shouldn't be a priority
-The County Commission should use Imminent Domain to purchase
  property at below market value
-Our schools already receive too much money
-New schools are a want and not a priority

Unfortunately, rather than offer alternatives to the current building plan or constructive ideas on how to improve the budget, these Commissioners and their backers have just one thing to say to progress: No


We know Sumner County can do better than that. This is an exciting, dynamic community that attracts families to middle Tennessee. We deserve excellent schools housed in safe, well-functioning facilities. 

The new building plan will alleviate the over-reliance on portables as permanent classrooms. It anticipates growth. It allows our schools to meet the demands of a growing community.

Last night's vote was a big victory for all of Sumner County. We all win when we invest in excellent schools and plan ahead to meet needs. 

This is an exciting time to be in Sumner County -- hard work is being done and in just a matter of years, the planning and focus we are seeing now will start paying off.

"I didn't know we were meeting to discuss a tax increase." Yes, a few "do nothing" commissioners remain...

By Wes Duenkel

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the commission for having the courage to put Sumner County in a better financial position for our children. By voting to return our tax rate to what we paid 13 years ago, they put community before politics. In the face of mounting financial challenges, they made an unpopular vote; not because it was easy, but because kicking the can down the road is not how a responsible government behaves.

I understand some of my fellow citizens are angry.

They're angry that those commissioners "raised our taxes" (albeit to a rate we paid a little over a decade ago).

But I think they're angry at the wrong commissioners.

You see, I was at the November budget committee meeting, and the specially called commission meeting on November 3rd. I saw several commissioners gathered in the lobby, outside the budget committee meeting while the County Finance Director delivered a presentation on the dire financial future our county faced, and why he recommended returning the tax rate to $2.50.

Then, I saw the finance director deliver the same presentation to the full commission.

But was flabbergasted with what I heard next: some of the same commissioners who gathered outside those open doors claimed that they were surprised the commission was considering a tax increase!

Those commissioners, after they were notified of the meeting that was called with the “INTENT TO EXCEED THE CERTIFIED TAX RATE” claimed . . . they didn’t know what the meeting was about!

Those commissioners, who were elected, and are paid $500 a month, didn’t know what the meeting was about?

Those commissioners didn’t offer any alternative proposals. Instead, they complained about how long the meeting was lasting!

You bet I’d be angry. I’d be really angry if commissioners I elected, and I paid $500 a month, didn’t take the first step to understand what a meeting was about, and then complained about how long the meeting was lasting.

Rather than be angry with the commissioners that had the courage make this tough decision, I’d be angry with those commissioners who didn’t want to do the most simple aspect of their jobs: KNOW THE PURPOSE OF A MEETING.

Those looking to reduce government waste need to look no further than the salaries paid to commissioners who don't put the slightest effort toward what they were elected...and are paid...to do.

It's Been a Great Year!

2014 has been an incredible year. 

As the year comes to a close, it's nice to reflect on all that has been accomplished by committed, engaged citizens who work together to put schools first. 

Working together, we changed the face of the Sumner County Commission

Click the photo to read the Tennessean story.

Click the photo to read the Tennessean story.

Working together, we pushed the School Board to pass a budget that sets our schools on a path toward excellence.

Working together, we convinced the new County Commission to fund meaningful investments in our schools.

These investments mean:

New building-level staff to handle the challenges of a growing system

A plan to maximize existing space and build where necessary - so portables as permanent classrooms will become a thing of the past

Providing the resources our students and teachers need for success

The ability to recruit and retain high quality teachers and support staff

Your support made this possible. By staying engaged, you have made a difference.

We've also:

Started an ongoing discussion with our Director of Schools where he answers the questions you ask.

Revamped and relaunched our website.

And finally, we are already planning for an exciting 2015.

Thank you for coming together as a community. It has been a long road and we are not done yet. We still have much work to do in the coming years and we are looking forward to continued partnership!

2014 Sumner County Property Tax Timeline

On November 3rd, 2014 the Sumner County Commission voted to set the current property tax rate to $2.50 per $100 of assessed value (or 2.5%), which is slightly less than the rate of 2002. The following is a timeline of events leading up to setting the new tax rate.

July 1, 2014
Sumner County leaders (including mayors, commissioners, and county officials) requested that the State Board of Equalization review the 2014 property assessment because Sumner County Assessor John Isbell changed values of over 25,000 parcels outside of the appeals process resulting in a county-wide devaluing of property by 1.59%. This delayed the County Commission setting the tax rate.

September 2, 2014
New County Commissioners were sworn into office before the property appraisal issues were resolved and a tax rate could be set.

September 15, 2014
The State Board of Equalization issued a letter to the Sumner County Assessor describing inconsistencies and concerns with the changes in appraisals of the 25,000 parcels of property, stating that Mr. Isbell failed to provide documentation or justification for the changes.

September 15, 2014
In response to the findings of the State Board of Equalization, the County Commission requested that the Sumner County Board of Equalization review the assessment changes made by the Sumner County Assessor.

October 6-20, 2014
The Sumner County Board of Equalization met three times to reconsider assessment changes of Sumner County property owners resulting from the 2014 Reappraisal by the Sumner County Assessor.

October 20, 2014
After the County Board of Equalization’s meetings, the process of setting the tax rate resumed. At the regularly scheduled County Commission meeting, Chairman Decker notified the Commission that there would be a special called session of the County Commission to adopt the tax rate in the next two weeks.

October 22, 2014
The Sumner County Clerk issued a Notice of a Special Called Meeting of the County Commission to adopt the 2014 Tax Rate, twelve days in advance of the November 3, 2014 meeting. The notice was published in Hendersonville Star News and the Gallatin News Examiner. The notice was titled “Notice of Intent to Exceed Certified Tax Rate.”

Meeting notice published in area newspapers and on the Sumner County Commission website: http://www.sumnertags.com/Commission/Notice_of_Meetings

 October 24, 2014
The notice of the Special Called Meeting of the County Commission was published on the Sumner County website. The notice was titled “Notice of Intent to Exceed Certified Tax Rate.”

Notices of the Special Called Meeting of the County Commission were published twice in Hendersonville Star News and the Gallatin News Examiner (October 22 and October 31).

October 31, 2014
A second notice of the Special Called Meeting was published in the Hendersonville Star News and the Gallatin News Examiner. The notice was titled “Notice of Intent to Exceed Certified Tax Rate.”

November 3, 2014
The Sumner County Budget Committee met. Sumner County Finance Director, David Lawing, delivered a presentation to the committee and the attending public about the county’s financial health. Based on the fiscal challenges facing the county, he recommended a $2.50 tax rate.

Excerpt from Sumner County Finance Director, David Lawing’s presentation delivered at the November 3rd called meetings.

November 3, 2014
The Sumner County Commission met following the budget committee meeting. The agenda items included the 2014 Sumner County property tax rate. Chairman Decker opened the floor for public comment on agenda items, but no member of the public chose to speak. The Commission discussed the tax rate and voted to set the 2014 tax rate at $2.50 per $100 of assessed value. Several commissioners debated the issue, but those in opposition failed to offer amendments or alternatives. (In contrast, the last time the tax rate was amended in 2003, there were eight different rates proposed during the meeting.)  The Commission voted to set the 2014 tax rate at $2.50 per $100 of assessed value.

November 17, 2014
At the following commission meeting the agenda did not include the tax rate, which was set at the November 3rd meeting. The county commission meeting rules confine public comments to current agenda items only. The Commission voted to uphold the rules, which don’t allow comments on any non-agenda items, including the tax rate.

Sumner County property tax rates from 2002 to 2014. The 2002 tax rate was $2.54 per $100 of assessed value; the current rate is $2.50.

Sumner County Tax Rate Explained - by Commissioner Chris Taylor

Fiscal Health of the County

Sumner County has been revenue neutral since 2002 with the property tax rate, but has been losing overall revenue dollars every year due to inflation and the increased population draining on public services that were set at the same levels. This is explained below:

The certified tax rates for Sumner County are initially proposed by the Property Assessors Office and are based on current property appraisals with a rate that is then set to be neutral, in that the county cannot increase revenue due to appraisals increasing, it must stay the same so if appraisal values go down the rate increases to stay the same, appraisal values go up then the rate decreases to stay neutral. If the county wants to increase revenue they must do so by raising the certified rate after it is accepted. This is done so that local governments must actually raise the tax rate to collect additional revenue on properties, rather than manipulate the assessment process to increase the appraisal value to raise the revenue which would create a false market value. Based on the lowered appraisal values this year the proposed certified rate from the Property Assessors office is 2.087 (this is the neutral number)

Since 2010 the population has increased 20,000 (155,925 to 176,163 a 12% increase) and is projected to grow to 190,388 in 2020 (an 18% increase).  This creates additional cost for public services based on greater usage.

Because revenue has stayed completely neutral it has not been adjusted to at least keep pace with inflation since 2002. These adjustments are referred to as “cost of living”, in that they allow the value of revenue/dollars to have the same purchasing power from one year to the next. Since our county has not made these adjustments the actual purchasing power of current revenue is down, this is exemplified by one dollar on June 30, 2004 now having the purchasing power in June 30, 2014 of only 79 cents. So although we have the same amount of revenue as 2002, it can no longer provide the same return.

This has created a disparity between our expenses as set by previous County Commissions and the revenue that is brought in (see below chart). The previous County Commissions have used reserve funds to offset this disparity each year. Over the previous 5 years they have used in excess of 22 million dollars to “balance” this disparity for the operating cost of the county versus the revenue brought in. 

In addition to the negative disparity created by operating cost vs revenue/inflation/growth there were several elements approved last year by the County Commission that the cost would not take effect until this budget year. They are:

-Newly created Judge/court expected cost of 550,000

- Improvements of libraries expected cost of 121,000

- School Resource Officers in every school expected cost of 1.4 million

 - The county health care policy that is used for employees has been operating at a deficit for the past 10+ years. The County Commission chose not to increase the rates/portions paid for by employees nor did they increase any funding sources for the policy. In 2012 the fund/policy was negative 6 million dollars and the County Commission used 3 million from reserves to bolster it. In Feb 2015 the county will have to put in 3 million additional dollars to keep it functional. This also was not budgeted for by the previous County Commission.

Taking into account the above listed cost and issues the budget for this upcoming year was going to be markedly short of revenue needed to fund it (based on the proposed certified rate of 2.087). By using every reserve funding available the budget would be viable until approximately July 1st 2015. After that date either new funding sources would be needed or a drastic reduction in services. Additionally if the budget went forward as above then the following fiscal repercussions would also occur:

-One of the factors that our bond rating is based on is the level of our reserves for our general fund. By draining all available money we would trigger a reduction in our bond rating. Currently we pay 16.8 million a year for debt services on 126 million. With a degraded rating that would significantly increase the amount we pay for debt services for any future capital improvements.

-There is currently only 5 million dollars a year available for capital cost, and this is used to cover minor repairs and replacement of equipment.  If there were any large cost incurred due to catastrophe (tornado, floods, etc.) and it required repairs to any county facilities, we would not be able to do them.  There is no more money available in the current bond used for capital improvements. The previous County Commission did not allocate any long term capital funding.

Why did the rate have to be set now?

With the Board of Equalization review of the current appraisals for 25,000 properties taking place the Office of the Trustee could not initiate the process to issue the tax cards that are mailed to property owners. That process cannot start without a certified tax rate being set by the County Commission. Due to the reviews taking place that rate was not available until now.

Once the County Commission accepts a certified rate, then the Trustee can begin sending the property information to the State of Tenn., who applies the exceptions and in turn sends it back to the Trustee. Then the information can be sent to the printing element and mailed out to the property owners. This process, best case scenario, takes 3 weeks from the time the rate is set. With our current timeline that has property owners getting their notices for this year in December. If it was delayed any longer, patrons would not get their notices and could not pay their property taxes until 2015. That would entail that property owners would receive two tax bills in the same calendar year and would not be able to claim a deduction on their Federal Income tax for 2014.

Because of the above reason the rate needed to be set at the special called meeting date; we couldn’t wait any longer to begin the process.

Furthermore due to the issues of the impending shortfall/collapse of the next budget (fiscal health section above) the certified rate of 2.087 had to be increased to a level that would at least meet minimum funding to cover the disparity. Once the rate is set by the County Commission it cannot be adjusted, it is set until the next year/budget so the idea of graduating or postponing an increase is not viable.

Why 2.50

With the understanding that the certified rate of 2.087 was not enough to meet current needs as set by previous commissions, a new rate would have to meet the additional listed expenses that were approved but not funded last year. A one cent increase in the property tax equals approximately 400,000 dollars in increased revenues.

The accepted certified rate is the starting point 2.08

The new judge/court, Millersville Library and school resource officers in all schools is a 3.08 cents increase for a new rate of

2.1115

To close the disparity between budgeted revenues to the General Fund to a manageable amount (see disparity chart earlier) is a 3 cents increase for a new rate of

2.1415

The operational cost of the new Burus Elementary is a 1.5 cents increase for a new rate of

2.1565

To close the disparity between budgeted revenues to the General Purpose School Fund to a manageable amount (see disparity chart earlier) is 16.25 cents for a new rate of

2.319

The above rate of 2.319 only meets the minimum for this upcoming year. It does not address the continuing disparity in inflation/growth or any potential capitol issues (large repairs, replacement, etc.).

The previous County Commissions have never addressed any long term plans nor their corresponding funding. Because of this the current capital bond had no available monies for future issues/problems/initiatives. Bearing that in mind the current commission made the decision to fund a reoccurring capital fund that would allow for the county to address current needs related to growth and also plan for future projects. This endeavor would require 7 million dollars for annual debt service. This is an 18.1 cents increase for a new rate of

2.50

Why establish a long term capital improvements fund?

The county has identified numerous long term capital short comings that have to be addressed over time. A few are:

-The need for 700-800 families in the northern portion of the county to have running water; this has a cost of 30 million. There is the additional economic benefit of the expected growth boom that area would then experience.

-The actual physical state of the school system and its ability to accommodate the 20,000+ increase in population.

-The county has experienced considerable population growth, but the corresponding business growth has not been present. This has fed into the issues the county faces fiscally. In order to truly have a viable economic model we must grow the business side. To do that we have to invest in economic stimulus projects.  This will have the additional benefit or increasing the sales tax revenue which could be used to supplement existing public services (General fund, Sherriff, Public Works, etc.)

This article was originally published by Chris Taylor on his Facebook profile on November 6 and can be found there at the link below.

https://www.facebook.com/ctaylormpd/photos_all

County Executive Anthony Holt on the Vote to Raise Taxes

County Executive Anthony Holt has been under fire recently regarding the County Commission's vote to raise taxes. He has spoken at several meetings around the county laying out the specifics. Today, he put it in writing.

He makes a REALLY important statement to those who are angry about the tax increase.

"The majority of these expenses were budgeted and committed to by our previous “fiscally responsible” County Commission with no attempt made to increase revenue or make corresponding reductions in the county’s budget, leaving our newly elected Commissioners holding the bill."

In other words, a budget that INSISTED upon additional revenue was approved by the previous commission and they did NOTHING to address the fact that tens of millions of dollars would be needed to fulfill that budget.

Read Mr. Holt's article here.

Jim Is Wrong

In a recent article for the Hendersonville StandardCounty Commissioner Jim Vaughn raised questions about the budget for our schools, specifically on the need for new investment in schools. Vaughn makes three claims I'd like to address. Vaughn's three claims are:  New investment in schools is not necessary, additional funds for personnel do not help students, and increasing support for schools will not result in improved test scores. 

I'd like to begin by noting that Dr. Phillips and the School Board laid out budget plans starting July and in meetings in August. Jim Vaughn was not present at those meetings, even though they were open to the public. The budget was then voted on by the Education Committee of the Sumner County Commission on September 8th. The minutes of that meeting reflect that Vaughn was not present to raise the concerns he voiced on November 21 in a newspaper article. Finally, the School Board's budget was passed at the County Commission meeting of September 15th. At that meeting, Dr. Phillips took questions from Commissioners are the proposed expenditures. Jim Vaughn was not present at that meeting to ask questions, raise concerns, or vote against the budget. Now, more than two months after the budget passed, Jim Vaughn is complaining that he doesn't like parts of it. That's simply disingenuous. 

Now, on to his first argument: Vaughn suggests we simply don't need new investment in schools. This is surprising as Vaughn represents the fastest-growing area in Sumner County. A tour of the schools in his district would demonstrate rapid growth.  In fact, over the past 10 years, Sumner County has added around 350 students per year -- or, the equivalent of an entire new elementary or middle school every two years. Part of the planned spending on schools is a 5 year plan to proactively address this rapid growth. It's a plan that maximizes existing space and efficiently spends funds. That is, rather than build a new school every two years, Sumner County will be taking advantage of and improving the facilities it has to manage growth. 

Next, Vaughn expresses concern that hiring new teachers means that the School Board is prioritizing personnel over students. Pitting teachers against students is one of the most cynical approaches used by those who don't understand how schools work. Strong teachers impact the lives of students every single day. A growing system needs to have adequate staff to meet the needs of current and future students. The alternative would be larger class sizes and less individual attention. Supporting personnel in the schools directly benefits the students those schools serve. Moreover, the new school system budget includes funds to improve teacher pay and adjust staff pay. This means Sumner County can both attract strong new teachers and keep the great teachers we already have. That's a win for students and their families. 

Finally, Vaughn wonders if investing in schools will have an impact on test scores. While that hypothetical proposition will only be answered in time, it is clear that those systems who consistently perform at high levels also invest significantly in their schools. Of the 10 systems that have the highest 3-year ACT average, 9 of them spend more per student than Sumner County. On average, those systems spend $1500 more per student than our system. That is to say, at the very least, there's a correlation between investment in schools and results in terms of student achievement. 

I regret that Commissioner Vaughn missed opportunities in September to more fully engage in the school budget process. I hope that going forward, he'll engage with the School Board, his fellow County Commissioners, and the parents and teachers in his district in order to gain a better understanding of the needs of our schools.