year in review

Five stories that shaped Memphis public schools in 2016

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
School closure public meeting at Carnes Elementary School.

Memphis is not only home to Tennessee’s largest public school district. It’s also a national hub for school improvement efforts supported by local, state, federal and philanthropic initiatives. Here are some of the city’s biggest education storylines for 2016:

Shelby County Schools began to ‘right-size’ its footprint by systematically closing and consolidating schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frisli Hernandez, a student from Charjean Elementary School, speaks at a December school board meeting where school leaders considered several consolidation projects.

Shelby County Schools had 22,000 empty seats in aging school buildings this year, meaning the limited resources of the cash-strapped school system were spread thin. While Memphis leaders have closed schools annually in recent years, 2016 saw the launch of the first systematic process for addressing the district’s under-enrollment challenges. The action was spurred by a comprehensive footprint analysis ordered by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 to guide school closures for the next five years. Hopson’s goal is to align the numbers of students and seats, while also boosting academic and programmatic quality. He estimates the district will need to close up to 18 schools. In his first round of recommendations, Hopson is seeking to consolidate five schools into three new buildings and close two more outright. The final vote on that proposal is scheduled for early next year.

The state-run Achievement School District took a one-year pause in school takeovers, while its lineup of charter networks began to change.

Citing the transition to Tennessee’s new TNReady test, ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a “hold harmless” year, freezing the school turnaround district at 31 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville. The pause allowed the ASD to put more focus on supports for its portfolio of charter networks, which have struggled with operational issues ranging from facilities to enrollment. But ongoing efforts to bolster enrollment were not enough for two charter operators. Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced in October plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools in North Memphis, leaving the future of those schools uncertain. Then this week, the Memphis board for KIPP voted to exit and close one of its four ASD schools. With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. But that expansion may be slowed under a new education plan proposed by the State Department of Education.

Enrollment wars heated up.

Shelby County Schools’ enrollment has dropped drastically since the state-run district began its annual expansion in 2012, and six suburban municipalities broke off to form their own school systems in 2014. After years of watching the drain of students — and the funding they bring — Shelby County school leaders finally

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School re-opens under the state-run Achievement School District.

had enough. This spring, the district went on the offense and rezoned parts of schools slated to shift to the ASD. Leaders also actively sought to retain students through tactics that ASD officials said amounted to misinformation and withholding of enrollment information.

But collaboration became an emerging priority for Shelby County Schools and its growing charter sector.

Memphis has more charter schools than any city in Tennessee, and charter leaders long have griped that Shelby County Schools could do more to support operators of charters authorized by the local school board. In January, both groups committed to working through turf battles. The resulting committee has begun to shape policy around funding, facilities and accountability. But that work didn’t come soon enough. The State Board of Education rapped Shelby County Schools for its lack of process after the school board’s hastened revocation of three charters this spring led to appeals — the first of their kind in Tennessee.

The local district managed to close its funding gap — for now.

With enrollment and funding down and the last of a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drying up, Shelby County Schools started out the year facing an $86 million deficit. Leaders managed to close that gap little by little, culminating with a significant $22 million boost from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners only days before the new fiscal year. The extra money came during an especially high-stakes year and helped the district give its teachers a 3 percent raise. For next year, district leaders are moving up their annual budget timeline to address deficits sooner and get more community input. The public’s first look at a proposed budget is expected in January.

Detroit

Week in review: A raise for some Detroit teachers — no pay for others

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

The situation at the Detroit charter school where teachers won’t get their summer paychecks is a reminder about the precarious finances that can affect both district and charter schools.

Charters don’t typically have historic debts like those that nearly drove the Detroit Public Schools into bankruptcy last year, but Michigan does not provide charter schools with money to buy or renovate their buildings. Unlike districts, charter schools can’t ask voters to approve tax hikes to pay for improvements. And when charter schools borrow money, that debt isn’t supported by the state or backed up by district taxpayers the way some school district debt is. So when a charter school shuts down and money stops coming from the state, there could be many people — that includes teachers — who simply won’t get paid.

Scroll down for more on that story as well as updates on the just-ratified teachers contract and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news.

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

 

Paying teachers — or not

  • Detroit teachers who mailed in ballots this month have narrowly approved a new three-year contract in a vote of 515 to 474. “We certainly deserve more,” the union’s president said in a statement “but the package offers us the opportunity to build our local, move our school district forward and place students first.”
  • The new contract, which will now go to a state financial oversight board for approval, would raise teacher salaries by more than 7 percent over the next two years but would not increase wages enough to bring them back to where they were before pay cuts a few years ago.
  • Meanwhile, teachers at the shuttered Michigan Technical Academy charter school — which had a lower school in northwest Detroit and a middle school in Redford — were furious to learn that they won’t get money they’re owed for work they did during the school year. The money will instead go to pay off debts. More than 30 teachers are collectively owed more than $150,000.
  • The school is the second Detroit-area charter school to run into financial problems affecting teacher pay. Educators at the Taylor International Academy in Southfield say they haven’t been paid since their school shut down abruptly in early June. Taylor and MTA also have this in common: Both schools had their charter authorized by Central Michigan University.
  • Meanwhile, across the state, Michigan’s average teacher salary has dropped for the fifth year in a row, and many districts say they have trouble retaining high quality teachers because of low pay. The finding is included in a six-story series on state teacher pay from Michigan Radio that already has detractors.
  • An investor service says the controversial changes Michigan made to its pension system are a “positive” for the state.
  • A University of Michigan economist says substitute teachers are paid less in Michigan than other states — part of why the state has a sub shortage.
  • A suburban district got 952 applicants for a single teaching job but the district’s superintendent says that doesn’t mean there’s not a teacher shortage.

On the home front

In Detroit

Across the state

  • A judge has blocked the state from spending public money on private schools. A Catholic leader explains why he thinks private schools should be entitled to the money.
  • MIchigan has dumped its school ranking system in favor of a dashboard.
  • An advocate who wants schools to face tougher consequences for poor performance slammed Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent school reform efforts. “Parents are tougher on their kids when they don’t eat their vegetables than Detroit’s turnaround plan is with its hometown failure factories,” he wrote.
  • Many of the hurdles that make it difficult to provide enough early education in Detroit also exist in rural Michigan communities.
  • A New York writer says Betsy DeVos might be powerful and influential in Michigan but in Washington without her checkbook, she’s “like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

In other news

money money money

New York City teachers get news they’ve been waiting for: how much money they’ll receive for classroom supplies

New York City teachers will each get $250 this year to spend on classroom supplies — more than they’ve ever gotten through the city’s reimbursement program before.

The city’s 2017-18 budget dramatically ramped up spending for the Teacher’s Choice program, a 30-year-old collaboration between the City Council and the United Federation of Teachers. More than $20 million will go the program this year.

On Thursday, the union texted its members with details about how the city’s budget will translate to their wallets. General education teachers will each get $250, reimbursable against expenses. (Educators who work in other areas get slightly less; teachers tell the union they spend far more.)

Money given to New York City teachers for classroom supplies, measured in dozens of tissue boxes.

The increase means that Teacher’s Choice has more than recovered from the recent recession. In 2007, teachers were getting $220 a year, but that number fell until the union and Council zeroed out the program in 2011 as part of a budget deal aimed at avoiding teacher layoffs. (Some teachers turned to crowdsourcing to buy classroom supplies.) As the city’s financial picture has improved, and as the union lobbied heavily for the program, the amount inched upwards annually.

“With this increase in funding for Teacher’s Choice, the City Council has sent us a clear message that they believe in our educators and support the work they are doing,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “At a time where we see public education under attack on a national level, Council members came through for our teachers and our students.”