A Tale of Two New Schools, Decreasing Enrollment, and Enduring County Debt

Guest Editorial by David Seal

Fiction and Hard Facts

Read the media releases or the sugar-coated news coverage of schools and you might get the impression that you are in a utopian place like Lake Wobegon, the fictional community created by Minnesota comedian Garrison Keillor who closed his weekly public radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, by saying  “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

If only Keillor’s fiction was Jefferson County’s reality. Our county is sixty-eight million dollars in debt; public school enrolment is declining; and a proposal is floating to build two new schools at a minimum cost of twenty-five million dollars; thirty-five million is a more realistic number. A set of important factors need to be carefully considered before money is borrowed on behalf of taxpayers to build two new schools. One factor is that county annual debt service obligation falls off dramatically in 2023, giving Jefferson County its first real opportunity to accelerate the disposal of county debt. Here is my analysis, factor by factor.

Public School Exodus

Parents are removing their children from public schools for a variety of reasons, a trend that started long before the COVID-19 crisis emerged, and accelerated once it did. Homeschooling has become more common because of the virus and other concerns, and the trend is nationwide. According to one report from The New American, 20 plus percent of students may be not return to public schools after the virus subsides, or surges. Having spent decades as a public school teacher, interacting with parents and students, I submit this list of prominent reasons for the exodus: health and safety concerns, dissatisfaction with school discipline practices, inconsistent application of student punishment for misbehavior – especially dress code and cell phone violations, fear of violence, limits on school prayer, limits on constitutional freedom of expression, perception that students are being indoctrinated with certain ideologies, dependency on standardized testing, perceived lack of academic rigor, and inefficient use of instructional time. The exodus negates the need for additional square footage of classroom space.

Privatization of Education

Private schools are being built in this area; and as they open, parents with the financial means are transferring their children to those schools. As a result, academic talent is being drained from Jefferson County schools. As the talent vacates, the metrics of school performance will deteriorate, placing our surviving public schools on thin ice with the bean counters at the Tennessee Department of Education, a very dangerous place to be if you want to avoid state intervention into the management of your schools. By legislative design, “Big brother” holds the nasty menace of intervention and funding requirements over all public schools, a modern version of Orwellian authority, fear-factor, and the sword of Damocles rolled into one. In the near future, student transfer to private schools will likely be the single biggest factor in declining public school enrolment. Statewide school vouchers will accelerate the onset of more private schools, another reason the public system will need less classroom space.

The Voucher Factor

It makes no difference what side of this issue you are on. School vouchers (Education Savings Accounts) are coming at us like a freight train. A voucher in Tennessee is a $7300 per year debt card for parents to use in sending their children to a private school, and to cover the cost of “approved educational expenses”. At the present time, vouchers are limited to low and middle income families that are zoned for low-functioning “priority schools” in Shelby and Davidson Counties, a provision of state law borne of political debauchery. The voucher program is currently stalled because of a Davidson County Chancery Court decision that deems vouchers to be in violation of the “home rule” provision of the Constitution of The State of Tennessee. This will change.

Statewide School Vouchers (1-2-3)

Vouchers, I predict, will be statewide in the foreseeable future. Please consider the following:

  1. Many Tennessee state legislators have an ideological goal of school choice that translates into statewide school vouchers, (aka ESA’s). With the matrix of the voucher system already codified, it is a simple matter of amending law, essentially broadening qualifications one element at a time, until vouchers are applicable for all Tennessee students. When this happens, not if it happens, public schools will be a shell of what they are presently; and local governments will be looking to dispose of empty school buildings.
  2. The Davidson County, Tennessee Chancery Court ESA decision may be reversed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals; and certain elements of the ESA statute that limit its scope may be nullified. The Institute for Justice (IJ), a liberty centered law firm with a nationwide track record of winning school-choice law suits, is representing two sets of Tennessee parents that are intervening as defendants in the case. Even if the first appeal is unsuccessful, a determined effort will continue through the court system to make ESA’s available to all students.
  3. Montana parent Kendra Espinoza and others filed suit against the Montana Department of Revenue because it excluded students from a student aid scholarship program along religious lines. The U.S. Supreme Court held in favor of Espinoza, clearing the way for states to provide education scholarship funding to religious institutions. The landmark 92 page decision in Espinoza v. Montana was issued on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. All public policy makers should be aware of the ramifications of this case, see web links provided.

Patriot Academy (PA), The 9th Grade Central Processing Plant

Conceptually, the establishment of Patriot Academy was based on a set of good intentions. Essentially, Jefferson County schools wanted a strong program to acclimate students to high school life, a way to provide a firm foundation from which to build a strong high school career. To some degree, it has been just that. High quality teachers and administrators were chosen for the assignment and both set out to design programs and pathways for student success. Many Jefferson County students in the 9th grade are great students that have responded well to a new centralized model of high school transition. However, a sub-group have not been so responsive; many of those students have failed to gain maturity and good behavior patterns while attending Patriot Academy; and scheduling/logistics problems have plagued the operation of both high school campuses.

Here is where the dumpster fire started.

Patriot Academy is located a mile away from the main campus. Students at Patriot Academy are isolated from the upper classmen, the very students that could provide valuable mentorship. There is value in trial-by-fire and learning the ropes of a new campus while you are at the bottom of the food chain; but Patriot Academy deprives our students of this valuable experience. They enter the main campus with a false sense of security. By their isolation, students are also deprived of access to certain classes they once had by being included at the main campus. A few programs at the main campus do include 9th graders, Band, JROTC, certain CTE classes, Chorus and special events. To mitigate the geographic and logistics nightmare, students are bussed back and forth during the school day on Dumplin Valley Road, resulting in lost class time for students and unnecessary transportation cost to taxpayers. They miss the full value of being in the mix at the main campus. As one student told me, waiting for the bus to Patriot Academy after his first period class, “we get to be 8th graders for an extra year”. He went on to say “we [9th graders] have been robbed of one fourth of our high school experience – it is just plain stupid!”. Consequently, main campus teachers are having to cope with an increasing number of 10th graders with behavior and maturity problems. Jefferson County needs to cut its losses and return the 9th grade to the main campus. This will free up a school building for 700 students and provide proper socialization for 9th graders.

Conclusion, Paying Off the County Credit Card

Public schools are being replaced by private sector schools and other non-public education options, which is accelerating in part because decades of abuse by government bureaucrats have destroyed much of what was once good about public schools. Congress and state assemblies let this happen across the nation. In the future, Jefferson County will need fewer public school buildings, not more.

20 cents of the current $2.19 property tax rate, $50 per vehicle Wheel Tax, and the $1/Ft Sq Adequate Facilities Tax are used to fund debt service, burdens to taxpayers that could be eliminated.

It is time to plan ahead and take the opportunity to accelerate disposal of the county debt.