It’s an “if” as big as the Batman building. But, if Nashville Mayor John Cooper survives the anti-tax referendum, his second year in office will focus on restructuring and increasing teacher pay, and addressing the city’s battered finances.
Much of Cooper’s first several months in office were spent revisiting the soccer stadium and surrounding mixed-use development that had already been approved for the fairgrounds property. Even though Cooper’s allies came away touting the better deal the mayor had negotiated for taxpayers, critics said the dragged-out fight made it unclear how he would govern.
Just when Cooper’s administration turned its attention to budget season, Nashville was torpedoed in succession by a catastrophic tornado, a once-a-century pandemic and an economy in ruins. Those obstacles were in addition to the racial unrest that permeated Nashville and cities across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
As Cooper puts it, he was hired by the voters to “fix things.” Absent the COVID-19 pandemic, he would have utilized a scalpel to make the approximately $70 million in spending cuts necessary to balance the budget. But, then came COVID-19. According to Cooper, the pandemic necessitated more dramatic budget measures and led to the 34 percent property tax increase approved by Metro Council in June.
Because of the record increase, an anti-tax referendum hangs in the balance to reverse the tax hike, transfer taxing power to voters and completely overhaul the city’s bond issuance program.
A Davidson County judge will hear a legal challenge to the referendum in the coming weeks. There is consensus among Metro charter experts that the referendum likely won’t pass the ultimate legal litmus test. It’s unclear if the ballot measures will be struck down by Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle before voters have a chance to weigh in.
However, if the measure is defeated either by the courts or by voters, insiders are curious what Cooper’s priorities will be in his second year in office after his first 12 months as mayor were occupied by the pandemic and the budget crisis.
“Schools,” Cooper said, without hesitating when asked what his top priority would be post-referendum. “Our great mission is to have the best paid teachers in the state. That, it turns out, would be ($32.6 million) and we can have the best-paid teachers in the state.”
Cooper’s administration was preparing to address the teacher pay scale in Metro Nashville Public Schools prior to the pandemic. A pay scale study was in the works for several weeks and ultimately released to little fanfare on April 1.
The study found it can take as much as 18 years for an MNPS teacher to earn $56,000 per year. To achieve the goal of MNPS employing the best-paid teachers in the state, it would cost $32.6 million. It would cost $28.2 million to accelerate the pay scale in order to provide steeper increases to early and mid-career teachers.
Cooper said those investments would be his top priority if the ballot measure was swept aside. He also touted the success his legal director Bob Cooper (unrelated) has had in suing the state of Tennessee in order to block implementation of Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher program, which critics say would hurt the MNPS budget.
“I’m super excited that Bob Cooper, by the way, has been so successful on his voucher suit. That’s an incredible contribution,” Cooper said. “It’s a great thing to have Metro’s legal director be an incredibly fine appellate lawyer. We need that function all the time it turns out. But the next priority is for sure fixing schools, and then working down the needs of a great city.”
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During the contentious budget fight on Metro Council, at-large Councilwoman Zulfat Suara helped lead the charge for pay increases for MNPS employees. Suara successfully passed a budget amendment to provide modest step raises for teachers. But, that amendment was contingent on schools maintaining a reserve fund balance of at least 3 percent. It’s too soon to know if that threshold will be met or not, Suara said.
Suara said she appreciated the mayor making schools his top priority. She said it is difficult to make dramatic changes to the budget, including adding money to pay teachers more, without the mayor’s backing.
Suara said she would hold the mayor accountable on the issue when the budget debate comes around next year.
Mayor John Cooper on issues:
- On schools: “Our great mission is to have the best paid teachers in the state.”
- On neighborhoods: “It is neighborhood nodes that are connected to each other, but each one has green space, parkways, community centers, a school that every knows is the backbone of the community, and that you live, work and play in that neighborhood.”
- On the tax referendum: “It would be devastating to us and to the city if that budget were walked back halfway through the year.”
“If the mayor makes it a priority then what that means is I don’t have to fight on council to amend the budget,” Suara said. “I’m excited to hear that. I agree. I really do. Our teachers, some of them are doing two, three jobs to make ends meet because the cost of living is so high and our pay scale has not kept up.”
Newly elected school board member Abigail Tylor said her first reaction to hearing that increasing teacher pay would be Cooper’s top priority should the referendum fail was “elation.”
“Elation is my initial response,” Tylor said. “We have yet to have a fully-funded school system. We’ve been putting out some amazing things. We have high schools that are among the best in the nation. So if we’re doing all of that being as under-funded as we are, just imagine what we could do if we were actually fully funded.
“All of those kids who may have slipped through the cracks because we didn’t have the resources or the manpower to get to them, we could get to them now.”
MNPS Director Adrienne Battle said she was “very optimistic” about a robust teacher pay overhaul that would have properly compensated teachers this year.
“Unfortunately, the economic consequences of COVID-19 prevented that from happening, but Mayor Cooper’s continued commitment to implementing recommendations from the study is clear,” Battle said. “I’m hopeful that Metro’s fiscal situation will be in a much better place during the budget process next year so that we can execute on the promises made to teachers and staff throughout the district.”
Cooper: investing in neighborhoods also a priority
After emphasizing the need to address schools, Cooper told the Tennessee Lookout that investing in neighborhoods is his next priority. Cooper, who was a real estate developer before becoming a politician, said he believed the trend was already for Nashville and other major cities to move away from the old model where its downtown is the business hub of the city.
He believes the pandemic will accelerate a new model where downtown remains a vital asset, but neighborhoods emerge as mini-hubs across Davidson County. To achieve that, Cooper said the city should invest in its neighborhoods.
“After that is neighborhood investment. We have sped up what was already happening in the country – it is not an urban-downtown back-and-forth everyday,” Cooper said. “It is neighborhood nodes that are connected to each other, but each one has green space, parkways, community centers, a school that every knows is the backbone of the community, and that you live, work and play in that neighborhood.
“Downtown is an asset, but it is not all of us emptying up from out from everywhere in the county and going downtown. Then, downtown is empty at night and we go back out of town. COVID moved that up, I don’t know was it by a decade, certainly by years of how people want to live. We are already realizing the benefit of that. People don’t realize that residential real estate is way up in Nashville, Tennessee.”
While touting his year-two priorities, Cooper is clearly preoccupied by the specter of the referendum. The ballot measure would undo the city’s 34 percent property tax increase, and require voter approval for any property tax increase of more than 2 percent.
Voters would also have a say on bond issuances and sale of public land.
“I was hired to fix stuff,” Cooper said. “The first thing to fix was our financial instability, and to keep it from being chronic and sort of city-ending. You know, it was a great city, but they never really got their act together and they never really funded schools, or picked up the trash or had enough police officers for what they needed to have.
“Once you fix the funding, then you do want to work your way through all of these other problems to be a great city. I feel well launched on fixing the finances of the city. It is difficult to then have that retroactively halfway through the year pulled back in a process that Tennessee has not really accepted.
“It would be devastating to us and to the city if that budget were walked back halfway through the year. Now, the referendum, in doing this should it be put on the ballot – nobody really thinks it’s legal enough to be a choice – it’s not been vetted by the charter revision committee. No lawyers have sat there and gone through it. Tennessee is not a referendum state. We already issued water bonds in April.
“Are you really going to have to have a referendum on the water bonds that you issued in order to continue to issue them? There are lots of particular problems.”