Two key legislative committees voted Wednesday to strip away $200 million proposed by Gov. Bill Lee to relocate 14 Tennessee schools built in floodplains, including three in Shelby County.
The amended spending bill, which will soon head to the full House and Senate, appears to shift that money instead into the state’s rainy day fund, which would grow to a record $1.8 billion.
The Republican governor had trumpeted his school relocation plan during his January state address, but in voting it down, GOP leaders in both the House and Senate pointed to confusion over the list of schools identified as being at high risk of flooding.
“At the end of the day, the two chambers negotiating with each other decided that we would not get into that kind of policy of building schools locally,” said Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The change to the state’s 2022-23 budget plan comes as hundreds of students in Humphreys County attend school in a repurposed warehouse after surging floodwaters last August destroyed their elementary and middle schools near Waverly, a rural town west of Nashville. The disaster, which killed 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes, was the impetus for the governor’s proposal “to ensure that no student in Tennessee attends a public school located in a flood zone.”
Lee’s press secretary, Casey Black, said the governor was “aware and monitoring” legislative changes to his spending plan but she declined to comment further.
Flood control advocates expressed shock.
“We can only imagine how many more lives would have been lost in Waverly if the flooding had happened during school hours instead of on the weekend,” said Dwain Land, the former mayor of Dunlap, who spoke with Chalkbeat on behalf of Flood Ready Tennessee, a coalition of local officials, homeowners, and first responders.
“This investment is important because we know this kind of thing will happen again and again, and it’s not worth losing more lives,” Dunlap said. “We can’t predict where a tornado is going to hit, but we can predict where it’s going to flood.”
Some legislators and local officials were confused by the list of 14 schools the governor identified.
For one thing, the two Humphreys County schools wrecked in August weren’t on the list, frustrating officials trying to rebuild after the flooding, said Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican whose district includes the Waverly area. (The amended budget provides up to $20 million to help Humphreys County Schools if insurance and federal disaster relief funds don’t cover the full cost.)
Multiple different lists of flood-prone schools have also floated around, including one that showed 25 Tennessee schools at risk of flooding.
In Memphis, where Wooddale Middle School was slated for relocation under the governor’s plan, administrators said they did not realize the state-run school was in a flood plain and have yet to be contacted by the governor’s office.
“This has all been news to us,” said Jocquell Rodgers, chief external affairs officer for Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network that operates Wooddale on a campus owned by Memphis-Shelby County Schools.
“We also didn’t understand how Wooddale Middle is in the flood zone but Wooddale High is not, because they’re essentially on the same block,” Rodgers said.
Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, who chairs the House Finance Committee, called the list of schools a “moving target” and said “there were just a lot of questions about that.”
GOP leaders didn’t specify where the $200 million removed for school relocation would go, but the budget amendment showed a $200 million addition to the rainy day fund, an emergency account the state can use to keep the government operating in case of a revenue shortfall.
“There were a few things we moved around in order to provide funding for non-recurring (expenses.)” Watson told the Senate panel.
That decision left other lawmakers questioning the state’s priorities.
“If your school’s in a flood plain, you’d probably prefer spending money to move before the next big rain rather than pumping money into the rainy day fund,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, said after the committee votes.
Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected]