Balanced budget

Budget is set, finally, for Memphis schools; now the spending begins

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
From left: Board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and board member Scott McCormick

On the eve of its new fiscal year, leaders for Shelby County Schools ironed out the final details of the district’s $959 million budget, preparing to give most of its teachers a 3 percent raise and restoring funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The school board approved its operations budget for 2016-17 on Thursday after pulling $3.5 million from its reserve fund to help balance its spending plan for academic and staffing needs.

The remaining difference came from from lowering anticipated unemployment benefits, increasing anticipated sales tax revenue, and closing two more high schools — Carver and Northside — approved by the school board in recent weeks.

That covers the last of a shortfall that at one time stood at $86 million and has been whittled down over five months, culminating on Wednesday when Shelby County commissioners agreed to increase funding to the district by $22 million.

The $959 million budget is $30 million less than the district spent this year, but Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the final tally avoids the worst cuts initially proposed.

With the County Commission’s vote this week to significantly increase funding for local schools, the district restored funding for 12 guidance counselors, reading and math specialists, and additional staff to absorb students from the closed schools. Also off the chopping block now is Hope Academy, a program for students in juvenile detention that represented one of the least expensive yet high-impact cuts proposed by Hopson’s administration. The program educates about 900 students per year for about $625,000.

As the new fiscal year begins on Friday, Hopson said the biggest investments will go to literacy, technology and small-scale replications of program successes achieved through the Innovation Zone, the district’s turnaround program for low-performing schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’re looking to extract things we’ve done well and see if we can scale some of those things,” he said.

One of those initiatives is the Empowerment Zone, anchored by Whitehaven High School and seasoned principal Vincent Hunter. Several of the schools in Whitehaven’s feeder pattern are in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide and on the cusp of being eligible for state intervention. The effort will include some teacher signing bonuses and more sharing of best practices among the schools.

With the state-run Achievement School District taking a hiatus from adding schools to its turnaround initiative, Hopson said the relative stability in enrollment will reduce the likelihood of another large budget deficit next year.

Top teachers will enjoy a long-sought 3 percent raise through a $13 million investment, even while union leaders lament the performance scale that the increase is based on.

In the upcoming year, the district also will pilot a new funding model to present for next year’s budget known as “student-based budgeting.” The approach is designed to provide more equitable funding across the district, which is Tennessee’s largest and poorest.

Student-based budgeting shifts from allocating money to schools based on a flat per-student rate toward building budgets that allocate more to students with higher needs. It also gives principals more autonomy on how to spend the money.

Also on the horizon, the district will take a hard look at how to get the right number of facilities for its students in the face of declining enrollment. Hopson repeatedly has said the district has 27,000 more seats than students to fill them, which will lead to more school closures in the coming years. A facilities study is expected in September.

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”