Court Victory Little Solace for Fiscally Pinched Districts

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For officials of many of Tennessee's low-wealth school districts, the memory of a summertime victory on finance equity is providing only slim comfort in the face of a difficult autumn of fiscal austerity.

Poor schools in the Volunteer State are beginning the new year under heavy pressure from state-aid cuts that have left them on shaky financial ground and widened the spending gap between them and their better-off counterparts.

Leaders of a group of low-wealth school districts are scheduled to return to court next week to recommend a long-range plan for reducing spending disparities. But most administrators are preoccupied with more pressing concerns about keeping buses running, maintaining classroom programs, and finishing the school year.

Backers describe the July ruling by Chancellor C. Allen High, who found that the state's school-funding system was unconstitutionally unequal, as an unqualified victory. But, they warn, the decision has done little so far to motivate lawmakers, who failed to pass a comprehensive education-reform bill during this year's session and tabled an income-tax plan that would have funded an overhaul of the school-finance system.

Legislators appear ready to wait for a decision by the state supreme court before acting, according to Lewis Donelson, the lawyer for the 77 small school districts that sued the state.

That ruling could come as early as this winter or as late as next summer.

Lawmakers are content to play a waiting game, he said, because they are wary of the political consequences of creating the state's first income tax, but unable to find any other funding source to pay for the school-reform plan.

"If they thought they could fund it with a Band-Aid, they would do it," Mr. Donelson said. "But the only thing that is left staring them in the face is the last political bugaboo in the state of Tennessee--an income tax--and they are scared to death."

The poor school districts will unveil their proposal for a school-finance remedy on Sept. 12.

During the trial of the suit against the state, Mr. Donelsen at one point offered to settle the case if the legislature would implement and fund the finance-reform plan proposed by Gov. Ned McWherter. Last week, though, Mr. Donelson made clear that the time for a deal had passed and that the plaintiffs would seek "considerably more relief."

"That was an offer of settlement in the middle of a trial," he noted.

Stopping the Buses

School administrators, meanwhile, are faced with trials of a different sort as classes get under way.

In Macon County, for example, a $400,000 cut in state aid means that school buses will stop running sometime in March, according to Superintendent Jimmy Wheeley. The district's $6-million budget fell about

$550,000 short of what administrators estimated would be needed to maintain last year's programs.

In addition to the truncated bus schedule, the district laid off teachers' aides and maintenance workers, put aside building and equipment spending plans, and abolished tutoring and other enrichment programs.

"From day one, we tried to protect the instructional program," Mr. Wheeley said, adding that scheduling an end to bus service several months hence was the only way the district could buy extra time.

"We are giving the legislature a chance to go back into session and come up with some new funding," he said.

In Pickett County, the state's smallest and one of its poorest, maintenance plans, summer school, and new textbook purchases have been scrapped.

"We're doing no more than what we have to," said Superintendent Sam Gibson. He said that the bus budget was spared because many students would otherwise be unable to get to school.

Despite the cutbacks, Mr. Gibson contended, morale among teachers and district workers is holding up. "Even when things are going well we are trying to do the best with what we have," he said. "So the philosophy is the same."

Legislators 'Hunkered Down'

Observers predict that the difficulties districts face in the year ahead could be the catalyst for action by the legislature.

"A lot of things are going to happen that are not going to make teachers happy and not going to make parents happy," said Nelson Andrews, chairman of the state beard of education. Grassroots pressure might open the mind of legislators, who now seem ready to put off the school-finance issue for as long as possible, he observed.

"The legislature, it seems to me, is just thinking, 'Let's delay as long as we can,' "Mr. Andrews argued. "It's sort of like they are hunkered down, and, as long as somebody doesn't shoot directly at them, they will wait it out."

In many quarters, he said, the criticism has already begun.

"A lot of people are really pounding the legislature, and, probably, they deserve to be pounded," Mr. Andrews said. "We've got a crisis here, and nobody is doing anything about it."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 31

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Court Victory Little Solace for Fiscally Pinched Districts
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