Chamber panel takes on school board taxing authority

Friday, May 29, 2009 at 12:54am

Nashville’s Board of Education sets district policy and hires and evaluates the director of schools. But the elected members of the board can’t levy taxes.

Instead, revenue for the system must be approved both by the mayor’s office and Metro Council, and some, including those at a Chamber of Commerce event Thursday, believe this dilutes accountability for schools among too many government bodies.

“The public is left out there with no idea which authority to hold accountable,” said Stephen Smith, assistant executive director of the Tennessee School Board Association. “Tennessee’s system is very much out of line with the rest of the country. …We think that [it] is a flawed system, especially in terms of accountability.”

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce took on this issue Thursday with a panel including Smith, as well as leaders of school systems in which board members can set taxes.

In December, the Chamber brought Kenneth Wong, author of The Education Mayor, to Nashville to discuss school systems run by urban mayors. Examining school board taxing authority is another means of creating a straight line of school district accountability, Chamber officials have said.

Ralph Schulz, president of the Chamber, said the time is right for conversations about district governance, as school districts across the country are working to meet benchmarks required by federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Most states already allow school districts to set their own tax rates.

“[Such districts] are unusual in Tennessee, but they are not unusual across the country,” Schulz said.

According to Smith, 81 percent of school districts in the country — districts in all but 11 states — have taxing authority. In Tennessee, 14 school districts are considered “special” districts, meaning that the districts have taxing authority with approval from the Tennessee Legislature.

One such district is in Franklin. But in most states in the country, school districts create their budgets and set tax rates that meet their needs, with no approval required from any other elected body.

Getting the law changed in Tennessee would take big steps. There’s been a state prohibition on establishment of new special school districts since 1982, and it would take a General Assembly vote to lift this prohibition. If this occurred, individual school districts would have to follow a separate and involved set of steps to establish themselves as special school districts.

Tennessee’s special school district boards bypass local elected bodies to seek budget approval from the legislature, but are still unusual in the United States in that most American districts can simply set their own tax rates. Making that happen in Tennessee would require an amendment to the state Constitution. Smith said it would likely be easier, in this state, to lift the prohibition on special school districts than to amend the state Constitution.

Panelists at the Chamber’s event highlighted big benefits to making the change. Chief among the likely gains cited was the clearing up of accountability.

“Accountability goes from the board to the classroom, and from the classroom to the board,” said Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of schools in Gwinnett County, Ga.

Schulz said after the panel that he sees benefits both to mayoral control of the school system and to giving the board tax authority. Both possibilities will be discussed by the Chamber’s board, he said.

“They both address this alignment of accountability issue, and they show the power of that alignment,” Schulz said.

Steve Turner, principal in Market Street Equities and a member of the Chamber Board of Governors, said that while he respects the players involved in the current system, he’d like to see changes. Giving the school board taxation authority could be “extremely beneficial,” he said.

“We have sort of a convoluted approach right now,” Turner said. “It gets to be more of a political decision, almost, than it actually is a business decision. There are parts of a school system that need to be run like a business.”


3 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 5/29/09 at 6:51

There never seems to be an end game for the Chamber wanting more taxes from we the tax payers of this county. The real deal here is a certain group doesn't want the diversity of opinion of an elected school board in setting policy. In many of these "special districts" the residence pay $1.00 or more per $100.00 above the normal tax rate. In most of these, 50% or more do not have children in the school system, but instead happen to have property located within selected boundaries the taxing authority feels could carry the load. "Accountability" is the selected word being used, but not the true goal. Remove the tax payers/voters from the equatiion is the real intent. This panel yesterday was as loaded to a one sided opinion and suggestions as most are when these type proposals are discussed.

By: dogmrb on 5/29/09 at 7:40

What percent of the total school budgets does the 81% include? It could be 81% of the small and medium size districts but the majority of the large districts, where the most money and children are, have a don't have taxing authority. Statistics can lie and liars use statistics.Obviously, the national Chamber of Commerce has a long-term strategy here so why don't they and Mr. Schulz just lay it out.

By: tv8527 on 5/29/09 at 9:29

I'm not surprised at this. They want to raise taxes whenever they see fit & say " but it's for the children " . Seems like it's always for the children & the taxpayer always get's shafted.