Editorial Roundup: Tennessee

Kingsport Times-News. September 8, 2023.

Editorial: School boards should have taxing authority

It was fitting that the Tennessee School Boards Association recently held the first of what will be nine regional meetings across the state at West Ridge High School.

The meetings seek guidance from local school boards on a proposal that school districts be allowed to set their own budget, outside the control of local government.

Most states give school districts their own taxing authority. Tennessee is among but 10 states where districts are subject to the financial authority of the local governing body, setting up a continual source of friction and frustration.

The Sullivan County Board of Education focuses much of its attention on finances: developing an annual operating budget and overseeing it as the year progresses. But once it has written a budget, it must then present it to the Sullivan County Commission for approval.

The commission has its own budget to develop and leaves the school budget to school board members. Commissioners must debate and approve the county’s operating budget, and then are required to approve the school budget — a complicated document they had no hand in developing.

And if the school board’s budget calls for an increase in funding, the inclination of county commissioners is to deny it when it might require a property tax they would be held liable for.

There were continuing issues when the decision was made to build West Ridge, the county’s newest high school, including location and concerns about safety on rural roads leading to the school. The school was built without a pool, a source of contention among parents.

The same situation is in place with respect to the Kingsport Board of Education, a separate political body than the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen. The school board develops the school budget but relies on the BMA to fund it.

There are pros to this system. For one, checks and balances. The school board must justify its proposed budget to local government. On the other hand, the local government is held directly responsible for the tax rate, and has incentive to keep it down, perhaps inadequately funding education.

Tennessee has 14 “special” school districts that do not answer to the local governing body for funding. Those districts demonstrate that it’s a better system when school boards are not handcuffed by a separate political body that may put its own interests first.

In 2008, TSBA went on record that it will pursue legislation that grants school boards taxing authority, arguing that since school board members can be removed from office and schools can be taken over by the state for not meeting performance standards, then school boards should be given the ability to secure the financial resources necessary to meet these standards.

It believes providing taxing authority would make school board members more accountable for school budgets and school success, make school board seats politically more important, attract more people to run for school boards, and garner more public input and concern about how local public education is operated.

And, it would eliminate the local battles that are often waged over education funding by removing local governing bodies’ principal objection — their lack of control over how tax dollars are spent in local schools.

Anything that furthers this agenda merits public support.