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School official rebuts out-of-control school spending claim

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Jon Duncan

Few things are as burdensome to politicians as voting records. Would Commissioner Jim Vaughn now have us believe he is suddenly a champion for public education? In a Hendersonville Standard editorial dated June 22, 2017, Vaughn identifies the issues he has with the 2017-2018 Sumner County Schools budget. His concerns include "out of control spending by the school board," the potential for a future tax increase, and his assertion that "teachers were not treated the same as the county general employees." All three statements warrant rebuttal.

"Out-of-control spending" is quite often arbitrary verbiage intended to score political points with an under-informed constituency. Voters in the 6th District are certainly smarter than Mr. Vaughn assumes. "You get what you pay for" is an old adage that should apply to both consumer spending and civic budgets. More often than not, however, taxpayers don't get what we pay for when it comes to government. That can't be said for Sumner County Schools. School budget increases have been completely validated by improved products--higher-achieving schools and better-educated students. Space constraints regrettably prohibit an exhaustive examination of the evidence. Suffice it to say that academic improvements abound: ever-improving ACT scores (three consecutive years), increasing numbers of Rewards Schools recognized at the state and national level, and more educational opportunities than ever (Middle Technical College in Portland, Middle College at Vol-State, and increased access to Advanced Placement courses). In fact, Sumner County was recently listed on the AP District Honor Roll. Only ten school systems in Tennessee achieved this honor. Immediately after the property tax increase passed three years ago, Mr. Vaughn publicly asked the following questions on November 21, 2014, as published in the Hendersonville Standard: "Are we going to see a return on this $15 million dollar [sic] reoccurring investment? Are the test scores going to improve to reflect our investment in this elevated budget?" Those questions have now been resoundingly answered, haven't they? Yet the commissioner continues to vote against Sumner County Schools.

Vaughn's concern for property tax increases is one shared by most voters. Let's not forget, though, that Sumner County still has the second lowest property tax rate among the twelve other counties making up the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area, even after the 2014 increase. Sumner Country average home prices are increasing at historical rates. Who among us would argue that strong public schools aren't a critical driver of these increases? The correlation is unmistakable. Increased property taxes have yielded improving schools; improving schools have yielded higher home values. If Mr. Vaughn has an aversion to property tax increases, he must be equally opposed to skyrocketing home values. From a personal perspective, my family has paid $849 ($283 per year) more in property taxes since the increase in 2014. During those same three years, my home value has increased $30,000 ($10,000 per year). Granted, not all of the increase in home values is attributable to improving schools, but what if we could conservatively estimate that schools are responsible for only 10 percent of local home values? In my case, $3,000 of my home's increased value could be attributed to better schools. That $3,000 appreciation cost me a sum total of only $849 in tax increases over three years. In investment terms, the property tax increase that so worries Commissioner Vaughn has yielded my family an 84 percent annual return on investment over the last three years. Now consider that Sumner County Schools, a government entity, drove this return on investment. In a world of increasing taxes and decreasing government efficiency, where else could we find a success story comparable to that of Sumner County Schools, its leadership team, and the School Board?

Finally, the most hypocritical of the commissioner's statements is his newfound concern for the teachers and students of Sumner County. If memory serves, Mr. Vaughn voted against the 2014 property tax increase, earmarked for education. To be sure, Jim Vaughn was no education champion in 2014, and he hasn't suddenly become one in 2017. Voting records are indeed the darndest things.

Here are some facts to consider. The 2014 tax increase Mr. Vaughn opposed has enabled Sumner County to double per pupil spending over the last three years, from $34 in 2014-2015 to $70 in 2017-2018. What does that look like in actual dollars at the school level? In 2014-2015, Madison Creek Elementary received from the county exactly $10,980 in instructional funds to be used for students at the classroom level. Last year, MCE received $22,085 in instructional funds, and this year MCE is scheduled to receive more than $28,000 for classroom instruction. During these same three years, teacher pay has increased approximately 5% (an average increase of 1.6 percent per year). Mr. Vaughn suddenly believes, "We should make sure that students and teachers have the supplies they need in the classroom and teachers are properly funded before we add positions in the administration categories of the budget." Sumner County Schools is fortunate to have district-level leaders who agree with that statement. This year's school budget adds 18 new teaching positions, funds the highest per pupil spending in the history of the county, and increases teacher salaries for the seventh consecutive year. All while adding only one full-time and one part-time district-level administrative positions.

We live in an era of fake news and alternative facts. It is absolutely incumbent upon voters to stop taking political statements at face value. If pro-education District 6 voters take the time to vet Mr. Vaughn and his alternative facts, he will soon be a former county commissioner. The truth is that Jim Vaughn's voting record paints a much different picture than his current political rhetoric. Sumner County students and teachers do, in fact, deserve much better--much better representation. So does District 6.

Jon Duncan is the principal at Madison Creek Elementary in Sumner County

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