Tennessee Districts Sue State Over Funding, Toilet Paper

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The Hamilton County Board of Education has recently voted to sue the state of Tennessee over the Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula used by the state to decide how much funding public schools receive.

One reason for the 8-1 vote comes down to toilet paper, or the ability to pay for it.  Copper Basin High School in Polk County has been having trouble purchasing toilet paper for their students while at the same time meeting mandates given to them by the state, according to D. Scott Bennett, the attorney representing the board in the lawsuit, in addition to a number of other area school districts including Polk County Schools.

The Polk County school board has recently also voted to sue the state over the BEP, as well as Bradley, Marion and Coffee counties.  Two other counties, Grundy and McMinn, are set to vote on the lawsuit as well, reports Tim Omarzu for The Times Free Press.

Signal Mountain school board member Jonathan Welch had initially made the motion to the file the suit, unless Governor Bill Haslam is able to produce a plan that has the support of the leadership of the General Assembly that provide more funding for the BEP.  According to Welch’s motion, that plan would need to be introduced during the March 23rd meeting between the Governor and the superintendents of the four largest school districts in the state, which includes Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith.

“We have to realize that kids need toilet paper in Polk County,” said Welch.

In addition to the toilet paper shortage, a number of other issues were discussed pertaining to how parents, teachers and donors of Hamilton County must make up the $13 million shortfall the district suffers annually because of a lack of state funding.  Welch said the average family of three will pay between $1,000 and $1,200 of their own money for extracurricular activities, and Chromebooks only exist at Red Bank High School for academic testing due to a $650,000 donation from the Benwood Foundation.

“They couldn’t do testing without the Chromebooks at Red Bank,” Welch said. “It was on the benevolence of others.”

Hamilton County also argues that the funding the state does provide does not cover necessary expenses such as teacher pay and health insurance.  The funding is underestimated by about $10,000 of what teachers in the district actually make and only pays for 10 months of insurance for teachers.

“The state has simply chosen to ignore their own laws,” Bennett said. He said the state Constitution guarantees the right to a free public K-12 education for all.

Previously, smaller school districts in the state have been successful in their lawsuits against the state three times concerning the amount of BEP funding they receive.  This time sees large districts banding together with the small in an effort to improve the overall amount of funding they each receive.

“This is not just about the four large districts,” Bennett told the board. “These [smaller] districts are looking to Hamilton County primarily because we got the conversation started.”