Members of county governments learn about school vouchers

Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Attendees from Marshall County included Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, left, and commissioners Anna Childress and Tina Lilly.

By John I. Carney

Special to the Tribune

School vouchers, if approved, would be "the greatest nightmare counties have ever faced," said Charles Curtiss, executive director of Tennessee County Commissioners Association, during a regional meeting held Monday at Henry Horton State Park. A bill which would set up the voucher system in Tennessee was passed last spring by the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives. The idea behind vouchers is that parents who put their child into private schools should be able to take with them the tax money which would otherwise have been spent educating their children in the public school system -- the tax money should follow the child, say voucher proponents. So under a voucher system, parents who choose private schools can get a voucher representing that tax money and apply it to the child's tuition at a private school.

But David Connor, executive director of Tennessee County Services Association, said it's not that simple. Conner said that existing public schools have fixed overhead costs, such as debt from building programs or maintenance costs for school facilities. If you suddenly make it possible for 10 percent of a school's population to leave, and take their tax dollars with them, that could have a devastating impact on the school system's financial status and viability. One would think that variable costs, such as the number of teachers, could be cut to match a smaller student population, but Conner said even that isn't always as easy or efficient as it seems.

"Vouchers, at the end of the day, would be the greatest nightmare counties ever faced," said Curtiss. He said that the voucher amount would be based on a school system's total spending, so fast-growing counties like Rutherford with aggressive building programs would, in effect, have to borrow even more for each new building project, to fund the share of that expenditure which would have to be given out in the form of vouchers. TCCA represents county commissioners on Capitol Hill, lobbying for or against legislation which would impact county governments. Each year, TCCA holds regional meetings around the state to brief county commissioners and county mayors on legislative developments at the state level, and to inform them about assistance programs sponsored by TCCA, TCSA, the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service and other agencies.

Other state issues discussed by Curtiss and Connor included

* Bridge grants. For years, the state had a bridge repair or replacement grant program based on an 80/20 match -- the local government would pay 20 percent of the project cost, with the state paying 80 percent. But the economic downturn in recent years meant that some local communities couldn't even afford 20 percent, and some needed bridge projects went uncompleted. So during the last legislative session, the state approved a new grant program on a 98/2 match, meaning local governments only have to put up 2 percent of the project cost.

* Right-of-way. A bill proposed by utility companies would have tightened the regulations for digging on right-of-way, but TCCA felt the proposed rules were too restrictive and would have meant that county highway departments would have had to give notice for such routine tasks as installing a stop sign or cleaning out a ditch. The bill was opposed by TCCA and did not move forward.

* School funding. There has been some review of the Basic Education Program, or BEP, the funding formula which the state uses to distribute money to local school systems. The last major revision to BEP, in 2007, helped some counties and hurt others. But Connor said the state's tight financial situation makes major changes to BEP unlikely right now, since the state would probably have to kick in extra money to help counties which were negatively affected by the new formula.

* Local jails. Connor said the state has given local governments new flexibility in the size of jail cells, giving them the freedom to choose between current regulations and the regulations that were in force at the time a jail facility was constructed.The state has also tweaked a portion of the TennCare regulations in a way that benefits local governments. When an inmate is incarcerated in a county jail, the county is responsible for all of that inmate's medical costs. In the past, TennCare (like most private insurance companies) would automatically drop coverage for someone who is incarcerated. But a law passed last year allows TennCare to pay for major medical expenses for inmates, taking that burden off the county. The change only applies to inmates who were on TennCare before being incarcerated. Those inmates still lose their TennCare benefits for routine medical procedures.

* Local debt. Connor said that TCCA and TCSA always argue for greater local autonomy, but noted that the state has, with some cause, tightened its control on the borrowing powers of local governments. Too many counties had gotten into unwise forms of debt, such as paying interest only for 20 or 24 years before any principal becomes due. Such arrangements merely postpone financial burdens to be dealt with by a new generation of elected officials down the road.New state regulations require new borrowing to be approved by the state, in hopes of preventing irresponsible borrowing arrangements.