The cost of education

Q&A: Hamilton County principals discuss funding gaps

Metro Ideas Project reached out to three local principals to get their ideas on school funding, community engagement and the pressing needs of their schools.

The principals — Zac Brown of The Howard School, Jill Levine of Normal Park and Elaine Swafford of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy — answer our questions below.

Q: How do you manage the gap between your school’s needs and available funding?

Brown: At Howard we try to use Title I funds very strategically. We’re also fortunate to have enthusiastic partners like Benwood, The Links Inc. and GEAR UP that help provide additional resources, like teaching assistants, after-school tutoring and transportation, as well as an incentive program for student and parent engagement.

Levine: We do a lot of fundraising. In 2005 after we lost Title I funds and the district made budget cuts, we set up an education fund to help pay for things like library books, art supplies, reading interventionists and summer professional development. We also have a dedicated PTA and sports boosters, which provide additional support. These funds help us to go above and beyond minimum district requirements.

Swafford: At CGLA we are working daily to fundraise for additional needs. We use a variety of fundraising methods — including grant requests, annual giving campaigns, special events such as golf tournaments, an annual fundraising Odyssey luncheon — and we actively reach out to foundations and the corporate community.

Q: What is the role of the community in helping bridge funding gaps at your school?

Levine: It’ll be a great day when the County Commission and the county mayor announce that they are investing more in education. It’s the role of the community to advocate for this increased spending and vote on the issue. Besides this, schools need to provide the community opportunities to help. This is especially true because sometimes people don’t know how they can contribute. For example, when we took over our current building in 2008, it was in disrepair, and we didn’t have the budget to renovate. So we challenged 50 contractors to adopt one classroom each. With support from these companies and individual donations, we were able to renovate the building through 100 percent community support.

Swafford: We strive to build relationships with stakeholders to help us educate our school children, especially those who are disadvantaged and underserved. Our students often need extra support and resources to overcome both social and academic gaps.

Brown: The community plays a vital role. Without the community we would not be able to offer after-school tutoring with transportation or an incentive program for student and parent engagement.

Q: What is one thing that can help improve funding decisions at central office?

Swafford: Funding equity. It’ll be helpful for students when everyone embraces the fact that we are all trying to educate public school children through both traditional public schools and public charter schools. A partnership that aims to collaborate and assist all schools equitably, especially those that serve disadvantaged students, is sensible. Also, each time a presentation is made by central office, public charters are shown as an expense to the district, when in fact it should be shown as a pass-through to the schools from the state. The way it is being presented, without explanation to the public, is misleading and unfair to those in the public charter system who are schooling public school children and being held accountable to become and remain highly effective.

Brown: Better communication. We need more communication between central office and school principals. Some principals may not understand the restraints and protocols that limit school funding.

Levine: More information. The school district needs to provide more information to the public so that it understands the issues. For example, the cost of benefits is rising, especially healthcare. Or the fact that to increase all teacher salaries by one percent would cost $2.2 million. Or that we’re 35th in the state for starting salaries — a fact that means we’re not attracting the best teachers.

Q: What is one critical aspect of your school that is in need of increased funding?

Brown: Teachers and interventionists. Many of our students require individualized attention. So when student-teacher ratios are low in subjects like math, English, science and history, students receive the individualized attention they require to be successful.

Levine: Facilities. Normal Park is a national model, and we have visitors who come to observe from all over the country, but our building is falling apart. In some places lead paint is peeling from the walls. We have window air conditioning units, which are so loud that students can’t hear over them. And we currently don’t have an elementary school gym, so students have PE in the auditorium. We’re trying to correct for this with targeted fundraising for a gym.

Swafford: Teachers, professional development opportunities and facilities. We attempt to hire the best teachers and teaching assistants to meet the expectations of the Tennessee Ready assessment and help our kids achieve proficiency. Many of our students start out behind two to three grade levels in reading and math. These students often come from disadvantaged families without the same resources as more advantaged students. Yet the state assessment expects them to perform the same as any other student. Automatically, the assessment has created yet another gap among lower, middle and upper income students. Therefore, it takes more resources to produce already unrealistic results. Certainly additional resources are necessary to achieve positive results that will change the academic and social lives of children. Teachers need continual professional development to remain excellent at their craft. Providing proper facilities for learning is a must, but always a struggle to fund.

Jacqueline Homann

Policy research director

Jacqueline Homann has worked at a number of international and federal institutions. She is a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and holds an M.A. in policy studies.