Aging Antioch Middle School has broken windows, shuttered ramshackle classrooms and a hallway that “just smells bad” because of mold, a passionate Mayor Karl Dean said Monday, entering the homestretch of his push for a property tax increase.
“Look in the face of those young kids, who are working so hard trying to get ahead, and say, ‘Is this good enough for you?’ ” Dean said, recounting a recent trip to Antioch Middle, a school built in the Harry Truman era with a student population primed to explode. “I couldn’t do it.
“We shouldn’t,” Dean added.
Before the Downtown Rotary Club Monday, Dean delivered a 35-minute final word on his proposed 53-cent property tax increase before the Metro Council is asked to weigh in on his $1.71 billion budget as soon as June 19. The speech’s central theme was a continuation of Dean’s fundamental case for a tax hike: After years of minimal government growth Metro’s budget lacks anymore “fat” to cut. Meanwhile, needs have mounted, he’s contended.
“If I could have avoided proposing a tax increase, I would have done it,” Dean said. “I realize no one’s happy when someone talks about increasing taxes. I have neighbors who aren’t happy. I have family members who aren’t happy. And I have friends who aren’t happy.”
Dean’s speech, which offered familiar arguments for investing in education and public safety, had a personal touch when he discussed trips he made last week to schools in southeastern Davidson County.
This fast-growing area is home to several school building renovation projects thanks to a $297 million capital plan, a third of which is devoted to school infrastructure. Antioch Middle, which operates out of Metro’s oldest utilized school building, is poised to grow from 470 to 750 students next year. Dean’s capital plan includes $11 million for its renovation.
Dean, without identifying a name, highlighted a pro-tax hike speaker from last week’s Metro Council public hearing on his proposed budget to put Metro’s public school needs in perspective.
“He talked about a private school in the city that over the last few years has been running a capital campaign for their own needs of about $100 million,” Dean said. “That’s for 800 students. We’re talking about $100 million for about 80,000 students.”
Dean pointed to Metro’s reduced dropout rate and rising graduation rate as reasons for optimism in the city’s public schools. He said Director of Schools Jesse Register has “not received enough credit” for tapping new principals at “troubled” schools, referencing the installment of Robbin Wall at McGavock High School, among other new hires.
“Schools aren’t where we want them to be,” Dean said. “But, progress is being made. I can say, without question, they’re better off than they were four years ago.”
Still, Dean said there’s “more work we need to do” as he argued the starting salary of Metro teachers should be raised from $35,000 to $40,000, a plan ensured through his tax increase. “It will make us a much more competitive city when it comes to attracting teachers,” Dean said.
“A good teacher can turn a kid’s life around, and a bad teacher will put them back,” he said.
In discussing public safety, Dean credited the Metro Nashville Police Department for reducing Nashville’s homicide level, which is at a 45-year low. Dean claimed Nashville’s crime rate is also on the decline.
“That came from us making this a priority,” Dean said, whose hoping to use additional tax revenue to retain 50 officers hired from an expiring federal COPS grant. If Metro does not retain these officers, it would owe the federal government $7.5 million.
“If we don’t do a tax increase, the fact is that of the 50 officers we got from the COPS grant, they will have to be let go,” he said. “And the fact is, if we do that, then we would have to pay back the federal government $7.5 million.”