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Education Featured Tax and Budget

Higher Spending Requested for Higher Ed

Tennessee higher education officials, sensing the wind in the back of the state’s education reform efforts, boldly made their request to Gov. Bill Haslam Tuesday for a budget increase of $28.7 million.

Haslam has asked all state agencies to submit a contingency plan for 5 percent reductions, and the state’s higher education schools complied with an outline that would trim $55.1 million from their books.

But leaders of the state’s public colleges and universities seized upon the initiatives from K-12 education and higher education like the Complete College Act as a means of persuasion with the governor. The $28.7 million request represents a 2.7 percent increase in funds.

“This is an interesting time,” Richard G. Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told Haslam during a budget hearing. “We have a new way of looking at it.

“The state has higher education serving the needs of the state. We have a new master plan. We have a new funding formula that reinforces that master plan based on outcomes. We’re seeing positive movement.”

Rhoda said there are indicators of more students completing degrees, better retention rates and improvements in the amount of remedial and developmental courses that have been falling to higher education. But even as a higher ed official, Rhoda pointed to the significance of what the state is doing in K-12 as the foundation for improvements in higher education.

“The reforms in higher education are great, but the bigger context is how it fits the other reforms in K-12,” Rhoda said. “For us to succeed really is predicated on those improvements in K-12. Just suffice it to say we very much support those.”

Rhoda sat between Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan and University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro at the hearing at the Capitol in Nashville. All three seemed keenly aware of the daunting financial obstacles facing students and families in affording college. THEC approved its budget request last week, but it came along with proposed increases in tuition that would range from 3-10 percent depending on the schools in the state’s higher education system.

Morgan made a pitch similar to Rhoda’s.

“The combination of Race to the Top, the Complete College Act, the talk is right,” Morgan said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy out there and discussion going on and realization that it really is about the state’s future.”

The education officials knew they were preaching to the choir in Haslam, who has made the ties between education and job growth a major theme in his first year in office. But it didn’t make the governor’s job any easier in funding education requests. Haslam cut the budget for higher education in his first year in office by 2 percent, or $20 million.

But the three educators brought even more ammunition to the table. DiPietro pointed to efforts to operate more efficiently in universities. Morgan said the costs at schools actually haven’t gone up at the pace of what students are experiencing in paying tuition.

Rhoda broke down funding trends for Haslam. He told the governor that 10 years ago a university’s funding came roughly 60 percent from the state and 40 percent from the students, while community colleges received about 70 percent from the state at that time.

Now, the figures have been reversed, Rhoda said. The state provides about 36 percent while student tuition and fees cover 53 percent. Rhoda, like Morgan, said cost itself is not increasing for the schools. The change, he said, is in the mix of revenue, where students are having to pay more for their share.

Haslam told reporters after the hearing that he believes there will have to be some tuition increase but that he hopes to limit it. He said he didn’t anticipate being able to grant the colleges a $28.7 million increase but that he didn’t believe he would have to hold them to a 5 percent decrease either. Haslam also pointed to capital needs at colleges and universities.

Haslam said the recent improvements in revenue figures could help the state address a $360 million budget gap.

“I’m really, really hopeful we don’t have to go 5 percent,” Haslam said. “Some of those cuts are tough.

“I feel a little better now than I did three weeks ago, but I can’t sit here today and tell you it will be 3 percent or 1 percent, instead of 5. I just don’t know that yet.”

The state reported that revenue collections for October were $791 million, 8 percent above October in 2010.

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Education Featured Health Care Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Bredesen: Politics Behind Report on Farr, Tax Variances

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen said Tuesday he believes the people who disagreed with former Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr “got their final shot in” against Farr with a recent comptroller’s report that criticized the department on tax variances.

Bredesen said he has not read the report from Comptroller Justin Wilson but has talked briefly about it with Farr and that he has never had any questions about Farr’s integrity.

Bredesen made the comments after an appearance at the University of the South in Sewanee with former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, in which Bredesen said his style in dealing with the Legislature sometimes was to “go right around them.” He noted that former Gov. Don Sundquist did not use the “bully pulpit” of the office for the power of persuasion with the people when Sundquist proposed an income tax.

And Bredesen, a former mayor of Nashville, got his own shot in about term limits at the Metro Council in the capital city, calling the limits of two four-year terms a “disaster.”

Bredesen said his contact with Farr about the comptroller’s report lasted only about 30 seconds.

“He told me about it. I said, ‘That’s fine. You know the crew over there that was trying to do you in got their final shot in. There’s now a report. Fine,'” Bredesen said.

Bredesen said he never had any particular problems with what Farr did.

“He had a department which was very politically divided internally about the way it should operate,” Bredesen said. “This department has always had a group of people who thought, ‘Our job is tax collection, period. What we need to do is audit returns and collect taxes, and that’s the end of it.’

“But you’ve also got people that say, ‘No, no, no, tax policy and the way you do things is part of the process of the department. It’s part of economic development.’ Reagan was in that mode. I think the people that disagreed with him kind of got the final shot in there. I’ve never had any questions about his integrity or decision-making process.”

The report, dated Oct. 17 and addressed to leaders in the Legislature, noted a frequency in recent years where tax variance award letters involved references to economic development. Farr served as Revenue commissioner from 2007-2010. The report also said key department employees were sometimes left out of the decision-making process.

Gov. Bill Haslam said this week he has read the report and wants to concentrate on setting clearly defined procedures in the department.

Bredesen, a Democrat, and Douglas, a Republican, participated in a discussion formally called “American Politics: The View from the Center.” Both are seen as moderates in a time of polarized partisan politics. But that did not prevent Bredesen from being vocal in his views on matters of how to govern.

Bredesen said the direct power of the governor to do something is “demonstrably less” than the CEO of “a good-sized company,” saying the governor is limited in terms of what the Legislature will do and who can be hired and fired.

“What is unparalleled is you have the bully pulpit,” he said. “If you decide as governor to talk about K-12 education for six months of the year, that’s what will get talked about in the state. The chambers of commerce will talk about it. The newspapers will write about it. TV will do stories. You can make that happen. So I’ve always seen the power of the governor as the power to persuade.

“And the way to get things done in the Legislature is to go right around them.”

He noted his former legislative liaison, Anna Windrow, was in the audience and “probably crying” at the comment. His reference to going around the Legislature was to make his point about taking an issue directly to the people.

Bredesen told the audience he went into the governor’s office after Sundquist had attempted to get an income tax approved. Sundquist, a Republican, failed and was largely ostracized by his own party.

“You sort of watch it and say, you know, instead of making a case to the people of the state as to why something needed to change in the tax structure, he didn’t do any of that. He just tried to do it by twisting arms in the Legislature,” Bredesen said.

“What happens is you get your arm twisted, and then you go back home and find out people have got pitchforks about the subject you’re talking about.”

Bredesen won in 2002 on a platform that did not include a proposal for an income tax. He said the state didn’t need one, to the chagrin of some in his party. Bredesen won a second term handily and never proposed an income tax in his eight years in the office.

Bredesen said he had no problems with term limits in the executive branch of government because of the power of incumbency, but he said the term limits enacted by referendum for Nashville’s Metro Council have been disastrous.

“I just think it’s been awful for the city,” he said after the event, pointing to a couple of veteran lawmakers with institutional knowledge as examples of those whose experience can benefit the council.

“I’m not quite sure what problem you’re solving with term limits, and what I think it did is first of all you dramatically enhance the power of the mayor. There’s nobody left on the council with the kind of, you know, the history. There’s no Charlie Fentress on the council. There’s no Willis McAllister on the council.

“You get a bunch of people who are in there and really feel they have to move and shake and make things happen in their early sort of terms. I don’t think it’s worked well for the city.”

Bredesen and Douglas met with students at the university earlier in the day, and Bredesen said the young people asked about how the governors made difficult decisions.

“They wanted to know, ‘How is it done? Tell me about some challenge you had’ — in my case TennCare or something — really a nice set of questions for somebody who is a senior ready to go out in life, not saying, ‘Let me debate,'” Bredesen said.

He said it was different from encounters with people who want to express a view about a specific issue.

“These were young people who weren’t so much concerned about that as they were just, ‘OK, I want to be effective in the years ahead. I’ve got a couple of former governors in front of me. How did you do this?'”

They also wanted to talk about jobs, he said.

“If you’re a senior in college in this economy today, you’re scared,” Bredesen said. “You’re scared about what the workplace holds right now. This is the time in which they want to get out, they want to get a job, they want to build a life, and it’s a pretty scary world out there right now.”

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Education Liberty and Justice News

Report: TN School Safety Gets Passing Grades

The state comptroller’s office says there’s always more that could be done to protect students from harm on school grounds, but that most K-12 facilities are meeting recognized safety benchmarks.

State funding for school safety has dropped over recent years, falling from $12.1 million in 2004 to $9.7 million in 2008, legislative research analyst Susan Mattson, who works for the state comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability, told members of the Joint Education Oversight Committee Tuesday. It’s unclear as yet how much of the remaining state funds will survive the latest round of budget reductions.

“Schools need additional guidance and tools to determine the appropriate balance between security and prevention methods to most effectively address the potential for violent incidents in their particular circumstances,” according the comptroller’s report (pdf).

But not all the changes to make schools safer need to cost more money, said Mike Herrmann, executive director of the Office of School Safety and Learning Support.

Schools should be teaming up with local police departments, mental health officials and others to develop a safe school environment, he said.

“Really what we’re talking about is tools. And in a lot of ways, the tools are only as effective as the people using them,” Herrmann said.

He added that Vanderbilt Mental Health has helped train school counselors to develop a trauma support team, a practice which has been ongoing for the last four years. Meanwhile, more than 550 police officers have regular contact with Tennessee schools, Herrmann said.

Oftentimes, making schools safer could boil down to something as simple as making sure students have adults they’re comfortable confiding in and who can accurately identify troubled students.

A key to better safety, Mattson said, is devising better violence prevention and security measures.

Mattson also recommended the state consider standardizing building security measures. And the state should develop more statewide assessments of overall school safety, offer guidance on school safety methods and consider how to more effectively allocate state and federal dollars to achieve the best results.

Over the last 15 years, nine violent incidents were reported on school
property, resulting in 10 deaths, she said.

In 2007, six percent of students said they have carried guns to
school, compared to 18 percent in 1997, according to Mattson.