Simply the rumor Metro might pay new teachers higher salaries has generated additional interest in Nashville among teacher applicants, Director of Schools Jesse Register told Metro Council members Wednesday.
“I’ll tell you, we do not have a shortage of people trying to teach right now in our district,” Register said at a council budget hearing Wednesday that lasted nearly five hours, surpassing the length a public hearing the previous night.
“Increasing our teacher salary,” Register said, “sends a very clear message that Nashville means business when it comes to getting the best teachers for all of our children.”
Lifting Metro’s starting teachers’ salaries to $40,000 from approximately $35,000 has emerged as one of the focal points of Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed $1.71 billion budget, which relies on a 53-cent property tax increase. The council will consider Dean’s budget and tax hike for a final vote later this month.
Register and the mayor are looking to increase the schools’ budget to $720.4 million over the next fiscal year, a $48.6 million bump, a big chunk of which would be devoted to teacher pay. Both men have said Metro would emerge as third-highest paying district in Tennessee, up from 30th today.
According to Register, Nashville’s teacher pay would begin to “compete with other districts around the nation.” He listed a handful of cities and their salaries: Atlanta, $44,000; Houston, $45,000; Louisville, $39,000; and Memphis, $41,000.
“We are not only in competition with other Tennessee school systems for the best teachers,” Register said. “We are in competition with other states and other salaries.”
On Wednesday, Councilwoman Emily Evans pressed Register on the topic, however, as she asked what quantifiable measures would improve if the plan were adopted. She wanted numbers.
“What’s going to get better?” Evans asked of the proposed teacher pay plan.
“Test scores,” Register responded, though he provided a caveat: “We’re going to make advances this year. But the last thing to change is the test score.”
Register, at the helm at Metro schools for three and a half years, told council members Wednesday that his reform agenda known as MNPS Achieves is turning the district into a “model of excellence.” He cited the district’s reduced dropout rate and an improving graduation rate of 76.2 percent. He said the district met all its state First to the Top improvement goals this past year.
But Evans, who represents parts of Bell Meade, challenged Register on what the district would “consider success” over the next year when it comes to state-mandated test scores. He said he would like Metro to “significantly” raise achievement levels and “close the achievement gap.”
Register declined to define “significant” when Evans asked him to do so. “I’m not going to answer that at this time,” he said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Evans responded.
Evans’ questioning offered the most colorful exchange during a five-hour hearing that saw Register discuss in detail new items the school district’s proposed budget would fund: 90 additional teachers, the opening of the new Cane Ridge Elementary School, a new so-called “Bridge School” to help students transition from middle to high school, and the mayor’s “Music Makes Us program, billed as an overhaul of Metro’s music program.
“This year, the Metro schools’ budget is centered on instructional needs,” Register said.
In addition, the mayor’s robust $299.7 million capital-spending plan sets aside $97 million for school building improvements. Stratford High School would get a $20 million makeover, while Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School would get a long-awaited gymnasium and other upgrades.
Register’s visit to the council came on the heels of the district’s announcement that it had cut approximately 130 special-education paraprofessionals, totaling $2.5 million, as a result of depleted federal stimulus funds. Metro parents of special-needs children have roundly criticized the plan, though school officials insist their policies for inclusive special education won’t cease.
Councilman Bo Mitchell, running as a Democrat for a state House seat, took exception with the district’s paraprofessional cuts Wednesday. He suggested special education services would lack essential manpower.
“We’re losing the federal money, I understand that,” Mitchell said, before listing off other seemingly less significant items the district is funding. “We might not be able to find money in this budget for all 130, but I think we need to look.”