PHOTO: WCS board members meet with the four state legislators from Williamson County during a discussion session Saturday morning. / Photo by John McBryde
By JOHN McBRYDE
In a Saturday morning meeting with the four Republican state legislators representing Williamson County, members from the Williamson County Schools Board of Education heard some good news, some not-so-good news and a little bit of no news.
“I know you guys are going to have some questions and we’ll answer to the best of our ability,” Sen. Jack Johnson, 23rd District and Senate majority leader, said to open the hour-long session at the WCS central office. “But I want you to know that a lot of these bills [being filed], we don’t have the language on them. We have filed caption bills, meaning placeholders, but we don’t actually have the amendment yet.
“Obviously, with Gov. (Bill) Lee being new to the office and putting together a new cabinet, he and his team have not been able to get specific language on some of these things… There’s probably going to be a lot of questions you may have where I’m probably going to have to say, until I get the specific language I may not have an answer.”
Joining Johnson for the discussion were Glenn Casada, 63rd District and Speaker of the House; Sam Whitson, 65th District; and Brandon Ogles, 61st District and freshman legislator who serves on the budget and finance committee. They discussed a variety of education-related topics, and legislators attempted to provide insight on issues whose solutions are still short on specifics.
Ogles mentioned a couple of bills that he said have a good chance of getting through in the current General Assembly session, which will conclude this summer. Both bills are concerned with school safety. One is to expand the school resource officer (SRO) program across the state. Every school in Williamson County, both those in WCS and in the Franklin Special School District, has at least one SRO assigned, but many districts elsewhere are lacking that resource.
“I think everybody is in agreeance that security in our schools is now a top priority, and the state’s going to come in and take some fiscal responsibility in making that happen,” said Ogles, who was elected as vice whip of the House Republican caucus.
He also mentioned a bill that would establish threat assessment teams across the state, an initiative that also came out of Williamson County.
“It’s an information-sharing process,” he said, “and enables local school systems the structure to set up threat assessment teams and gives them protection under the state law.”
Ogles, however, did offset a positive note with a sobering statement about the basic education program (BEP), the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools. Williamson County has long been underfunded through the program, according to education and government officials here who have tried for years to have the formula restructured.
Board member Gary Anderson, 5th District and board chair, brought it up Saturday, but Ogles was fairly forthright in his response.
“The problem is, once you touch BEP and you open that up and it goes into debate on the floor, we’ll (Williamson County) be in trouble,” Ogles said. “We will not get more money, we’ll get less. … We have to be careful because I‘ve had some county commissioners come up to me and say we have to re-engineer the BEP, and my pushback is be careful for what you wish for. If it hits the floor in that capacity, I promise you it will not end well for Williamson County.”
The problem, he explained later, has something to do with perception.
“Williamson County’s test scores are so high, our schools are beautiful ,our economic numbers are the highest in the state, our median household income is the highest in the state,” Ogles said… “I’m afraid we’ll get less money because of the discrepancy statewide. That’s what I’m afraid of. So any more money we would get from the state would need to be outside the BEP.”
Discussions also centered on lowering age restrictions for school bus drivers, the possibilities of vouchers or educational savings accounts (ESA) for parents with children in underperforming schools or districts, and the ongoing dilemma of how much revenue Tennessee is missing by not implementing a sales tax on online shopping.
“This is something my colleagues and I have been talking about for some time,” WCS Superintendent Mike Looney said. “We’re losing literally millions and millions and millions of dollars in Tennessee to online sales. Obviously, Williamson County would be impacted by sales tax on online sales. I’m hopeful that as y’all move forward, either in this session or the next, that you come up with solutions on how we could recapture some of those lost sales.”
Casada didn’t elaborate much, but he did say the issue will be addressed this session.