PHOTO: Sunset Middle School teacher Laura Kleman speaks in favor of more funding for teachers during the public hearing Tuesday in Franklin. / Photo by Alexander Willis
By ALEXANDER WILLIS
The proposed property tax increase in Williamson County saw its first public hearing Tuesday at the Williamson County Administrative Complex in Franklin, where residents on both sides of the aisle came to voice their thoughts on the proposal.
Passing its second reading by the Budget Committee last month, the proposal would see the current tax rate of $2.15 per $100 of assessed value increase by five percent, coming out to $2.26. The county tax rate is separate from a city tax rate, which is set by each respective municipality.
Budget Committee Chair Steve Smith had previously said the need for a tax increase was solely to help fund Williamson County School’s operating budget, which includes things like salaries for teachers and administrative staff. Smith said everything else in the county’s budget was “fine,” and that the school system’s operating budget demonstrated a shortfall of about 11 cents.
One of the first residents to speak during the public hearing was Sunset Middle School teacher Laura Kleman, who said adequately paying school staff was essential to keeping quality school teachers in Williamson County.
“Our teachers, especially those early in their careers, have truly been struggling financially for the past several years,” Kleman said. “Recent news articles highlight that less experienced teachers often spend over half their income for rent – and that’s just Davidson County, where teacher pay is significantly already higher than ours. Throughout this year, many teachers have come to me, anxiously asking, ‘is the market rate adjustment going to happen?’ These are young teachers; teachers trying to start families, teachers who would like to improve their craft by pursuing a master’s degree, though ultimately, it all hinges on money.”
Kleman continued by arguing that the school system is the foundation for Williamson County’s success, and that if that is to continue, its funding should be of the utmost priority.
“Each year, we have continued to break SAT records, national merit records, and overall scholarship records,” Kleman said. “For 2018, the average ACT was 25.4 – you only need a 21 for the Hope Scholarship. In 2018, students were offered more than $1 billion – that’s with a ‘B’ – in scholarships. The only way we can continue this trend is by hiring top-quality talent. Thank you for enabling us to do that by packing this budget.”
Currently, the starting salary in Williamson County Schools for new teachers is $37,500, substantially lower than Davidson County’s rate of $43,363. In fact, Williamson County Schools is lower than many of its neighboring counties in terms of teacher salaries, including Dickson, Wilson, Rutherford and Montgomery counties.
While Kleman’s comments garnered applause from some of those in the audience, not everyone in attendance was in favor of the proposed tax increase. One such person was Fairview resident Marshall Walker, who said he came to the public hearing out of concern for the tax increase.
“Some of us in the private sector don’t have the luxury of getting a pay increase every year – I happen to be in sales, so I might or might not get a pay increase,” Walker said. “I just think five percent is at one time is a lot, just because the growth should pay for itself. I’ve heard over and over people say that growth doesn’t pay for itself, but how did Williamson County get to be such a great school system at the bottom tax rate that it was? They just received a sales tax increase, we had the gas tax increase… so it’s not a big chunk all at one time, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”
Walker also criticized a comment previously made by Budget Committee Chair Smith, where Smith had said the committee “could have tried to line-by-line, nickel and dime the budget, but it would be difficult to come up with the kind of dollars we’re looking at.”
“Somebody made a statement previously from the budget commissioners, and said we “could go line-by-line and nickel and dime the budget, but we’re not going to,’” Smith said. “If your family situation came to the point where you’re in a lot of debt, and maybe you need to increase your income to manage your household budget, what is the first thing that you’re going to do? You’re going to nickel and dime your budget. I know we could find we could find a lot more inside of the budget that’s already there, and just grow at the rate that we collect the taxes.”
The County Commission will vote on the proposed tax increase on July 8, 9 a.m. at the Administrative Complex in Franklin, 1320 West Main Street, Franklin, TN 37064. The meeting will be open to the public, and have opportunities for public comment.