Largest-Ever Tax Hike For Education Deemed Insufficient in Nashville

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — August 06, 1997 4 min read

When the governing council for Nashville and surrounding Davidson County approved its largest tax increase ever for education, the region’s leaders trumpeted it as a sign of their commitment to improving the metropolitan area’s ailing schools.

By hiking taxes 54 cents per $100 of assessed value on homes in the city-county district and allocating a 20-cent share to the schools, the leaders expect to finance a three-year plan that will create hundreds of new teaching positions, reduce class sizes in the early grades, enrich music and art programs, provide millions in capital improvements, and create a new curriculum.

But for some officials, educators, and parents, it’s not enough. In their view, the council did far more to get voter approval of a $290 million football stadium that lured the Houston Oilers to Music City, U.S.A. The $ 20 million-a-year education plan, which was scaled down significantly from separate proposals offered by the school board and the mayor, shortchanges schools, they argue. The $20 million excludes capital improvements.

“The cost [for the mayor’s plan] would have been just $25 a year more for the owner of a $100,000 house,” said Murray J. Philip, a school board member. “What [the council’s vote] cost the school system was $140 million in capital improvements, and it cost us [part of the] class-size-reduction plan,” Mr. Philip said. “I blame it on the spineless council people who promise one thing and vote whichever way the wind blows.”

Moreover, local civil rights leaders charge that it does little to settle a 42-year-old desegregation suit and leaves the burden of busing on black students, who now will not get the new schools designated for the inner city. As a rule, all inner-city students in grades K-4 and 7-8, a large proportion of whom are black, are bused to schools in the suburbs. Most fifth and 6th graders in the predominantly white suburbs are bused to the city schools.

Burdening the Taxpayer?

The four-year plan proposed by Mayor Philip Bredesen called for a 30-cent tax increase for the 70,000-student system. It included: hiring more than 200 new teachers as part of a class-size-reduction plan for grades K-6; providing almost $200 million in capital improvements to build 13 new schools and renovate 78 others to eliminate some of the nearly 500 portable classrooms; extending the school day by a half-hour to allow teachers more planning time; underwriting 172 teaching positions to meet state mandates for art and music education; and creating a new core curriculum based on the Core Knowledge program developed by E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of the influential 1987 book Cultural Literacy.

But coupled with a nearly 60 percent boost in local property assessments recently, the plan would have put too much of a tax burden on residents, many council members believed.

The approved budget included many of the mayor’s provisions. But the class-size-reduction plan, which will cut the student-teacher ratio from about 25-to-1 to 20-to-1, will be limited to K-3 classrooms. In addition, the $85 million authorized for capital improvements will mean new classrooms for the additional teachers, but needed maintenance and renovations for the district’s overcrowded and aging buildings will be deferred.

For schools where art and music programs have been eliminated or reduced in recent years, there will be full-time programs with full-time teachers, but there is only enough money to hire those with little or no experience.

Finger Pointing

Criticism of the plan has been harsh. Local newspapers have run scathing letters and editorials accusing the council of putting politics before children. The politicians, they say, will brag about the millions more the city and county will spend in addressing some of the most critical issues facing the schools, while saving homeowners from a larger tax increase.

Some critics say those same politicians promised that once Nashville became a National Football League city, the investment would pay off for education. The council has reneged on that promise, contends Kathy Nevill, the mother of two in the public school system.

“We have spent more on entertainment than on education. We have used [millions of] dollars to build a stadium, but we have students going to school in 30-plus-year-old buildings,” she said.

Ms. Nevill charged that if city leaders had promoted the school plan as vigorously as they did the stadium, most residents would have supported a bigger tax hike.

“Any step forward is terrific,” Richard Benjamin, the district’s superintendent until last year, said. “But I really believed that if there was the support for ... the stadium that there would grow, for all the right reasons, a formidable force to improve the schools,” he said.

Councilman Ron Turner lobbied for the full tax increase but eventually voted for the compromise measure. “I understand the frustration of the community. You drive around metro and look at some of our schools, and they are an embarrassment,” Mr. Turner said. But the stadium package, he said, was financed through a combination of state, local, and private money and cannot be compared with the school plan.

Some blame the lack of support on the school board, which had proposed a much grander plan. Municipal officials dismissed the board’s fiscal 1998 budget proposal, which would have put the district $20 million in the red.

But Mr. Benjamin endorsed the school board plan, saying a huge effort was needed to bring metropolitan Nashville schools up to par with those in most other NFL cities.

The school board plan focused too much on fiscal issues and not enough on academics, said Mayor Bredesen, who has made the Core Knowledge curriculum the cornerstone of his education plan.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week