December 2011 is my last month as a Director of Schools. I have been in this role for 5 years and have had some of the proudest moments of my life as leader for the Putnam County School System. I have watched our system be recognized for instituting an on-line school; a strategic pay plan for professionals; high quality STEM training for elementary and middle school teachers; state recognized after-school programs; an award winning facilities design; and energy efficiency initiatives resulting in millions of dollars of annual savings. I have had some significant accomplishments with my school system due to a great group of committed educators who do a lot with a little.
Stepping into my new role as Deputy Commissioner, I intend to tackle the challenges for school systems across the state. I see the difficulty with raising achievement to meet the much higher academic expectations of Common Core Standards and the Tennessee Diploma Project. With these higher expectations comes the need for improved professional development for our teachers as well as increasing access to high quality intervention programs for struggling students. Simply demanding higher results is not enough; preparation of our teachers and administrators and commitment by entire communities to change results are required to move the state forward.
In my own system, the desire of our Board and our educators to raise achievement is evident. A major difficulty, however, lies within the state funding mechanism for school systems and the lack of requirement of local funders. Currently my system expends $818 per pupil below the state average of $9,084. Multiply that by our approximate 10,000 students and we are an estimated $8,818,000 short of an average Tennessee school system budget. Putnam is not an isolated system in its funding difficulties. Underfunding of public education is a common occurrence across the state and will remain so until expectations of the importance of education are addressed and emphasized by communities and their elected officials.
A recent on-line article listed Tennessee as the state with the lowest debt per capita. That is great for taxpayers, however, the article also points out “many programs go underfunded. For example, it (Tennessee) spends less per capita than any state in the country on education. It also happens to have the 11th lowest percentage of adults with a high school diploma.” Nationally, Tennessee ranks last in K-12 education funding. A report by the U.S. Department of Education in 2008 indicated that $10,441 in adjusted dollars was the national per pupil average expenditure. Adjusted for inflation, that number would be higher. The harsh reality is, Tennessee can have great intentions to improve education, but until the funding issue is addressed for county systems like Putnam, it is an improbable change.