Tennessee Senate Bill 1755 was proposed on January 23, 2018 by State Senator Todd Gardenhire. The bill proposes that all property and assets in a municipality that belong to a county school system would be forcibly transferred to the municipality if it forms an independent school district.
There are a variety of consequences of this bill, if it passes, that run counter to the desires expressed by the Hamilton County community through the recent process of the forming the Action Plan for Educational eXcellence (APEX Project).
That’s why UnifiEd is organizing the community to contact your state legislators and urge them to defeat the Schoolhouse Heist Bill.
Senate Bill 1755 – An Overview
“If a municipality creates or reactivates a city school system . . . all real and personal property that is located within the boundaries of the municipality and is owned by the county school system shall be declared surplus property by the county school system, and transferred to the municipal school system.” (Read the full bill here.)
Reverse Robin Hood Effect
Under this bill, the state would force the transfer of assets from one entity to another without compensation. Taxpayers own their schools, yet this bill would allow for their property to be seized. Historically across the state, and within our own community today, the municipalities that have formed independent districts have been affluent suburbs.
This situation creates a transfer of wealth from lower income neighborhoods to more prosperous communities. It is, in effect, a “reverse Robin Hood” effect — stealing from the poor to give to the wealthy.
Equity, Fairness, and Community Voice
For six months in 2017-2018, we collected community input from across Hamilton County to identify issues of inequity across the school system along with potential solutions to those issues through the APEX Project. The 25 most commonly cited issues and solutions were then voted on by the community through the APEX Bus Tour to prioritize the most urgent solutions for achieving equity for every child in our schools. Three of those solutions would be severely obstructed if SB 1755 is adopted.
Capital Planning and Investment
One of the APEX Project’s solutions states “Funds must be provided to make all school facilities safe and healthy learning spaces, and there must be a long-term plan to keep them that way.” This statement gets at the need for an adequately funded long-term capital plan for our school system. There would be little incentive for the county to fund capital projects, though, if it they could be forced to cede those assets at any time in the future while still being responsible for any debt on the assets. This bill would incentivize municipalities to exit county systems and leave taxpayers continuing to foot the bill of schools to which their students no longer have access to attend.
The passage of SB 1755 would also stifle long-term capital planning efforts because there would be little confidence to assume debt for assets with an uncertain future. Lack of long-term planning leads to inefficient capital spending and creates an environment in which maintenance, expansion, and construction of schools would be gravely deferred.
Racial and Socioeconomic Segregation
Two additional APEX Project solutions state that “Community members must demand the end of socioeconomic and racial segregation in our schools” and “A plan must be developed [by the Department of Education’s Central Office administration] to end socioeconomic and racial segregation in schools.” SB 1755 directly threatens efforts to end segregation in our schools, and here’s how.
Receiving school buildings and property for free from the county lowers a primary barrier to municipalities seceding from county school systems. An incentive would be created for municipalities to exit county systems and leave county taxpayers footing the bill of schools to which their students no longer have access to attend.
Municipalities with the resources and political clout to effectively establish independent school systems would be left with an unfair advantage with new budgets free from capital debt that would remain shouldered by the county system. Such communities would be incentivized to segregate themselves while lower-income communities are left at an even greater disadvantage due to ongoing debt service and loss of assets.
As affluent independent districts segregate themselves from their surrounding community, the already grave issue of concentration of poverty in our schools becomes worse.
About Signal Mountain
To illustrate the above position, let’s examine the impact SB 1755 could have on Hamilton County schools. One municipality in our county, Signal Mountain, has recently explored a plan for creating a separate school district. If that plan were to be revived, the residents of Signal Mountain could vote to create an independent school district. Under SB 1755, Hamilton County Department of Education would then be forced to transfer Signal Mountain schools’ property, buildings, and assets to the new district while continuing to pay the debt on those buildings.
Mayor Jim Coppinger has stated that Hamilton County currently owes $17.5 million on the bonds for those school buildings on Signal Mountain. The new school system would not assume that debt and Hamilton County taxpayers would continue paying for the buildings.
In addition, the schools on Signal Mountain were built to serve not just Town of Signal Mountain residents, but also children residing in Walden and unincorporated areas of the mountain. The children and taxpayers residing in these areas would be unfairly penalized by this bill because they would no longer be able to attend schools they paid for and that were designed to serve them.
One of the gravest issues facing Hamilton County schools and negatively impacting student success is the high number of schools of concentrated poverty. One-third of schools in Hamilton County are considered such, meaning that more than 80% of the school’s student population lives in poverty. The community has demanded through the APEX Project that racial and socioeconomic segregation come to an end in our schools, yet the secession of Signal Mountain from the school system would provide a major roadblock to efforts to increase every school’s diversity.
The Schoolhouse Heist Bill would make it all the more easy for that secession to happen, leaving the rest of the county not just with big debt but also even bigger challenges to increasing diversity and student outcomes.
Contact your state legislators and tell them to vote no on the Schoolhouse Heist Bill!