Nashville Mayor John Cooper is proposing a budget that will pump $81 million more dollars in public schools and make the city’s teachers the highest paid in the state.
Cooper unveiled his budget priorities during Thursday’s state of Metro speech, providing an optimistic vision for a city besieged by pandemic, tragedy and natural disaster.
Fresh off a budget in which he imposed a historic property tax hike amid the economic downturn from the pandemic, Cooper is proposing to switch gears for the fiscal year 2022 budget.
The former at-large councilman, real estate developer and political campaign manager offered a budget that infuses more money into education, more money into mass transit, more money into affordable housing and more money to the police department.
There are no substantial spending cuts, but there’s also no proposed increase of the property tax rate in Cooper’s budget. That was a salient question since the mayor himself confused the issue with a string of vague interviews with television stations earlier this month.
The highlight of Cooper’s second budget is an overhaul of the teacher pay structure that will provide the average Metro Nashville Public Schools teacher with a pay increase of $6,924. Long-term teachers with between eight and 15 years of experience will receive a pay bump of $10,800 under Cooper’s proposed education budget, believed to be the first time in more than a decade in which the full MNPS budget request was met.
Cooper campaigned on the issue of committing more money to teachers, arguing that in Nashville where the exploding cost of living has made it increasingly difficult to compete for top teaching talent. The city is hardly helped by the state’s education funding formula which sets the average teacher salary at just over $48,000. That leaves Metro to pick up the slack in providing money for the district led by Director Adrienne Battle to pay their teachers competitively.
Cooper said during his campaign that teachers were the developers the city needed to invest in —an apparent swipe at previous administrations that seemed to focus more effort on economic development deals and not enough on rank and file government employees.
Early in his term, Cooper commissioned a teacher compensation study, which was released in the spring of 2020, but drowned out in a news cycle that included the deadly March tornado, the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and then police brutality protests.
Would Cooper keep his word, stakeholders wondered?
“A city on the rise gives everyone the opportunity to rise with it,” Cooper said in his speech. “That opportunity starts with an excellent education. Today, I’m proud to announce Metro’s largest-ever investment in public education – both in operating and capital dollars.
“My proposed budget includes an additional $81 million for Metro Schools. For the first time in a generation, we are fully funding the School Board’s budget request. And we’re investing $50 million to make our teachers the best paid in Tennessee.”
The teacher compensation overhaul will also include bending the curve for scheduled salary increases so that good teachers get bumps sooner in their careers, after year three. The education spending also includes funds for social and emotional learning, an area of much needed improvement for MNPS following the tumultuous pandemic that left about half the district’s students learning remotely.
“We owe it to every child to make investments in their future that match their potential,” Cooper said.
“Today marks a historic pivot toward equity in our city,” said Amanda Kail, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association. MNEA is the organization that represents public school teachers in Davidson County. “For the past few years, MNEA has been unable to be silent about the conditions and great inequities in our schools. We have spoken at public meetings and marched through the streets. Now thanks to Mayor Cooper’s historic investment in our schools, educators have finally been heard.”
“Today marks the moment where our city has joined us in ensuring the every student can expect to have a certificated teacher in every classroom, no matter where they live. In 2019 over 1,000 teachers risked their jobs in a walk out to demand more for our students,” Kail continued. “Today is a beautiful vindication of that effort. Thank you to Mayor Cooper, and thank you to every educator who worked so hard to make this happen,”
Besides education, Cooper is proposing dedicating an additional $25 million to WeGo, the city’s mass transportation department, that includes replacing about $20 million in lost federal funds from last year’s CARES Act. The Cooper administration is also committing to hire 42 new staffers for the newly formed Department of Transportation and funds to expand the bus route system.
Between operating funds, dedicating American Rescue Plan dollars and promised future spending, the Cooper administration is committing $37.5 million to affordable housing, including an additional $12.5 million to the Barnes Fund.
Nashville is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis where its lowest paid working class residents can’t afford a place to live in the county. Debate about the recent agreement with Oracle, which includes committing $175 million in property taxes paid by the tech giant to cover the costs of infrastructure and environmental remediation, has spilled over into a discussion of affordability and housing needs.
Where will the 8,500 Oracle employees live and will they displace long-time residents in the nearby neighborhoods? The investment in the Barnes Fund and other affordable housing initiatives is the most meaningful financial commitment to date by Metro to address the issue.
Cooper’s proposed budget may delight the city’s progressives by reducing by half the criminal clerk and parole fees that convicted criminals must pay. The 37208 report which studied how Nashville’s criminal justice system affects economically disadvantaged populations identified a possible $1.2 million reduction in those fees. Working with Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry and Sheriff Daron Hall, Cooper is proposing to reduce those fees by $600,000 annually.
That may be an area where progressive members of the Metro Council push to achieve the full $1.2 million in annual savings.
At a time when the far left members of council have called for reducing policing funding, Cooper proposed hiring 48 new police officers to staff the proposed new southeast Davidson County police precinct and to oversee the newly implemented body camera program. The body cam officers will manage the video data and use the footage as training opportunities for officers. Antioch area council members have pushed for the new precinct, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see other council members propose slashing the police budget and challenging the mayor’s proposed increases.
Of course, the biggest issue hanging over Nashville is the COVID-19 pandemic. Cooper and the health department announced earlier this week a move to rollback most of the pandemic related public health orders, including capacity restrictions on most businesses.
Masks will still be required indoors and the city’s primary pandemic response moving forward will be focused on its vaccine distribution plan.
“As the science predicted, Nashville’s case fatality rate was half that of Tennessee counties without mask requirements,” Cooper said. “This morning, we remember the 903 Nashvillians we’ve lost to COVID. May their memories be a blessing. But, the science indicates that your work – masking, distancing, and getting tested – saved hundreds and hundreds of lives here in Nashville.”
As for property taxes, many Nashville residents will see their tax bills go up, but that will be due to the recent reappraisals not another increase to the rate. The average increase across Davidson County was 34 percent, so if your property value went up by more than that, your bill will increase. Cities aren’t allowed to achieve a windfall because of the reappraisal process and must reduce the rate to match the rise in values. If your property value equalled the county average, your bill will not increase.
Cooper debated a slight reduction to the rate, but elected not to pursue that option and instead used his second operating budget to make investments in areas he campaigned on.