- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - A state panel that makes annual recommendations for improving Tennessee’s school-funding formula has dropped longtime school needs costing millions from its latest report.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports (http://bit.ly/1XZL4ik) those same recommendations were cited last spring by local education boards in a lawsuit alleging the state is not meeting the costs to educate students.

Tennessee has a constitutional obligation to provide free K-12 public education, which it does through the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The exclusion of most past recommendations from the Basic Education Program Review Committee’s Nov. 1 report roused suspicions.

“What changed?” asked Jonathan Welch, a Hamilton County school board member. Hamilton and six nearby counties sued Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers last spring over funding. Shelby County school leaders have filed a separate suit.

Welch said the annual report “was very consistent for years and then it was different this year.”

Asked if he thought the dropped items had anything to do with the lawsuit, Welch said, “it may.”

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, said in an email that the review committee’s move had nothing to do with the two lawsuits pending before a Davidson County judge.

“The BEP report reflects the BEP Review Committee’s 2015 priorities as well as a collective, ongoing commitment to Tennessee’s teachers and students,” Heyburn said.

She noted that the report and recommendations were adopted with no dissenting votes at public meetings, and said there was a “concerted effort to make the 2015 documents more succinct and focused for the state’s policy makers.”

The committee - whose members include Finance Commissioner Larry Martin and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen - deleted an entire section that was listed in the 2014 document as “Additional BEP Formula Improvements Recommended in Previous Years as an extended priority.”

One dropped item was continued implementation of the 2007 formula revamp known as BEP 2.0. Others included reducing class sizes and creating new components for professional development and mentoring, and doubling the number of school nurses from one per 3,000 students to one per 1,500.

Implementing them all would take hundreds of millions of dollars. Just bringing teacher salaries up to BEP 2.0 standards would cost $532 million, Hamilton County says.

Committee member Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, which represents the 141 local schools chiefs, said he doesn’t believe “anyone’s minimizing the previous recommendations.”

He said the priorities in the current report “outweighed the others in the past (reports) and there’s real hope the ones that are mentioned this time have a real chance to be funded.”

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com

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