summer session

Middle schools scramble after summer program funds shifted to struggling schools

PHOTO: Mayor's Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio at M.S. 331 talking about after-school programs for middle school students in 2014.

More than 40 middle schools participating in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new after-school initiative have learned they will have to cancel their upcoming summer programs, just months after being told that funding would be available.

The money, a city official said in an email to after-school program directors last week, was being “re-directed to schools with the greatest challenges.” The news came days after de Blasio announced that he was pumping an extra $50 million of city and state money into 130 struggling schools, including the 94 in his administration’s turnaround program.

Now, the middle schools need to make other plans.

“What can I say?” said Principal Ron Link of Theatre Arts Production Company School in the Bronx, who got the news on Wednesday afternoon. “That’s the nature of the principal’s job. You get constant news out of left field.”

The summer program would have been an extension of the mayor’s new after-school initiative for middle-schoolers, called School’s Out New York City, which has programs in more than 560 schools this year. Directors of those middle-school programs were told in a February email that the city was “excited” that funding had become available for the summer. By the end of March, a few dozen programs had been given the green light to start up again in July for at least four weeks.

But an official told program directors in an email on May 8 that while overall funding for the after-school programs had increased, “some of the City’s planned summer funding will be re-directed.”

“We are unable to expand summer services as previously proposed,” wrote Mike Dogan, assistant commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development.

Advocates are concerned that other, established programs that serve students over the summer will also see funding reductions under the mayor’s latest spending plan, including Beacon community centers and the Cornerstone programs that operate in public housing. The Campaign for Children, a 150-member coalition of early education and after-school groups that include the Children’s Aid Society and the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, estimated Wednesday that the changes to the three programs will affect 17,000 students.

“Programs are really quite frankly in a panic,” said Citizens’ Committee for Children executive director Jennifer March.

Dayana Perez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Youth and Community Development, said in statement that the city is still funding middle-school summer programs that existed before this year’s after-school expansion, including Beacon and Cornerstone programs in the city’s highest-needs communities, and that the Department of Education is continuing Summer Quest and its own arts- and STEM-focused summer programs. Officials said the city is budgeting for 39,000 summer program seats for elementary schoolers and 17,000 for middle-schoolers.

“The executive budget ensures that much-needed services are available to high-need students at 130 struggling schools,” Perez said. “This administration has made afterschool expansion a priority, and we will continue to work to make comprehensive afterschool opportunities available to all students.”

Still, the Campaign for Children estimates that it would cost at least $10.2 million to make the proposed middle-school summer programs a reality and boost funding at the Beacon sites and Cornerstone programs to their expected levels. And though the City Council has historically stepped in to fill gaps in after-school funding, March said any emergency funding included in a budget adopted in June likely wouldn’t come fast enough.

“Parents aren’t going to wait until June 30 to figure out what they’re doing with their kids the following week,” March said.

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

Funding & Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools may ask taxpayers for more money. A three-year deficit and raises for teachers are driving the decision.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools leaders may ask the public for more funding.

With Indianapolis Public Schools slowly burning through its savings, district leaders may soon ask taxpayers for more money.

For the third year in a row, the district expects to operate at a deficit, following years of declines in state funding and growing spending on teacher pay. Now, to balance the budget, some district leaders say IPS may need to ask taxpayers for more money through a referendum.

It will be more than a year before the district can put a referendum to increase property taxes on the ballot, said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. But with state funding stagnant or declining, Ferebee said that he believes the district will “absolutely” need to have a referendum for more funding to pay teachers at the current rate and potentially increase pay in the future.

In recent years Indiana schools have become largely reliant on state funding for operating expenses, with local money primarily paying for transportation and facilities. But districts with pinched budgets often appeal directly to residents to increase property taxes and send more money to schools. Of the 11 school districts in Marion County, eight have asked taxpayers for more funding to pay operating expenses such as teacher salaries and six were successful. The most recent district to make an appeal was Washington Township, which passed a referendum last fall.

Next year, IPS expects to spend about $22 million more on operating expenses then it receives in state, local and federal dollars. The district can make up for that gap in the short-term because it has about $57 million in savings, and it is adding millions of dollars to its coffers each year from the sale of unused buildings. But neither strategy is sustainable in the long term.

“We know we have deficits,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager. “Ultimately, much like a lot of the other local districts and state districts, an operating referendum is very much a consideration for our district.”

Before district leaders appeal to voters for more cash, however, they are aiming to cut some of the costs that are weighing down the shrinking district — which has lost thousands of students over the last decade. The biggest drain are the district’s underused schools. The district has nearly three times as many seats as there are high school students to fill them, which dramatically pushes up costs at some schools.

(Read: Empty hallways, higher costs force Indianapolis Public Schools to consider closing high schools)

Last summer, IPS leaders announced plans to close some of the district’s high schools. Ferebee said last week that the district could close schools by 2018-2019.

Board member Kelly Bentley said that closing some high schools is one way that the district can show taxpayers that it is managing its finances responsibly — and win more support for a referendum.

“I think the district has been and continues to be really good stewards of the money that we have,” she said. “We need to continue to do that so that the taxpayers feel comfortable that we are doing what we can with what we have, and there really is no other alternative.”

IPS leaders are also looking to prove their fiscal responsibility in other ways: Since Ferebee took the helm three years ago, the district has touted a focus on making sure funding goes directly to schools. Last year, consultants for the district found that spending on management and leadership had fallen to $684 per student in 2015-2016 from $876 in 2012-2013.

But IPS leadership has also spent big on some areas. The district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay outside consultants to help plan a new approach to school budgeting. And last fall, the district approved the first teacher raise in years, which increased the minimum salary for teachers to $40,000 — at a price tag of about $1.7 million per year, according to an IPS spokesperson.

If the district wants to raise teacher and principal salaries again, the district will need to have a referendum, Bentley said.

“With concentrated poverty like we have in IPS, I just think it’s a huge challenge for principals and teachers,” she said. “We just need to be able to pay them competitively. I just hope that the public will see that.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.