Budget unveiled

Hopson wants to invest in Memphis teacher raises, student supports, struggling schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson joined school board members and teachers last August to celebrate a new school supplies depot for teachers in Shelby County Schools. On Monday, Hopson unveiled a 2017-18 budget that proposes more investments in teachers and schools.

Memphis school teachers could get a 3 percent raise for a second straight year under a proposed spending plan touted as “investing more in people than in programs.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Monday unveiled a $945 million spending plan for next school year that avoids the layoffs and cuts that have dominated recent budgets for Shelby County Schools.

Instead, Tennessee’s largest district plans to invest in new resources to support its classrooms by adding 18 instructional coaches, 35 school counselors, 11 assistant principals, and 20 interventionists for literacy and math. Each teacher would get $50 more each year to buy classroom supplies, on top of the $100 they already receive.

The district also is earmarking $5.9 million to pay for interventions at 11 struggling schools and to provide retention bonuses for their teachers.

It’s all part of nearly $50 million in academic additions proposed for next school year — a flip from last year when the district made $50 million in cuts. To help cover the investments, $18 million would come from the district’s general fund balance, which now stands at $110 million.

The proposed budget for 2017-18 is 2 percent lower than this year’s, due partly to another year of declining enrollment. But it’s the first year since the 2013 merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools that the district has kicked off its budget season without a shortfall.

Despite the anticipated drop in students, no teacher layoffs are planned. Instead, excess teachers will be moved to fill vacancies elsewhere. “We’ll have a place for all of our teachers,” Hopson said during a conference call with news reporters.

The budget was presented to school board members with messages about both good news and bad.

The good news: Shelby County Schools will continue to benefit from the boost in local education funding approved last year by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which holds the purse strings for school funding.

The bad news, Hopson said, is that the district is still “woefully underfunding by the state,” a claim supported by a recent Rutgers study and the basis for the district’s ongoing funding lawsuit against the state.

Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson also warned that the district’s newfound stability could be rocked if the state legislature passes a tuition voucher law. One bill specifically aimed at Memphis could cost Shelby County Schools about $18 million annually.

“It is a significant amount that jeopardizes us doing more in terms of academic intervention, academic improvement, and improving more emotional and social support for our kids,” Johnson told board members.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, is built on the assumption that vouchers will be approved and that 1,000 students would take advantage of them at a cost of $8.6 million. If the bill fails, Hopson said board members could redirect that money to more school supports.

Proposals to invest in supports that reach classrooms drew praise from school board members. Stephanie Love cited increased staffing to support students’ social and emotional needs, while board Chairman Chris Caldwell welcomed the chance to invest proactively.

Meanwhile, former chairwoman Teresa Jones urged district administrators to be transparent about exactly where the investments will go.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Jones said. “I realize we have a lot of ground to make up. And it’s the first year since I’ve been on the board we’ve been able to try to make investments — real investments — district-wide. I’m pleased for that.”

Exactly how the $10.5 million in teacher raises would be rolled out is still under discussion. The district is in negotiations with the county’s two teachers unions. Last year, Hopson pushed for merit-based raises, but eventually extended them across the board after technical and logistical problems with the state’s new TNReady test delayed teacher evaluation data to the district.

The budget aligns with Hopson’s initiative announced last month to work with principals to transform 11 schools struggling with academic, enrollment or building maintenance problems. The effort pulls components from the Innovation Zone, the district’s school turnaround program, to help improve schools in crisis.

“What we hear year in and year out is we need help in schools,” Hopson said. “We were really thoughtful about coming up with a budget that shows significant and sustainable investments in schools.”

Below is the administration’s budget presentation to school board members.

money matters

Why money for Memphis schools is about to be based on students, not adults

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Under a budget model switch, Shelby County Schools would focus more on the types of students in their buildings and less on the number of staff per school.

Educators generally agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t work. Now school leaders in Memphis are saying it doesn’t work when distributing money to schools, either.

Beginning this July, Tennessee’s largest district will pilot student-based budgeting at up to eight schools, with the expectation of expanding to the entire district in three years. The goal is to distribute money more equitably.

Under the new method, each student brings to their school a certain dollar amount, which can grow based on factors like whether the student has a disability, is an English language learner, or comes from a low-income family.

That’s a big change from traditional budgeting, which distributes money primarily based on how much it costs to pay the salaries of adults who work in a building. The traditional model usually allocates less money to schools with high-needs students because they generally employ less experienced and lower-paid teachers.

The new approach would give principals more say in how they allocate money within their building. The system also appeals to those who want schools with greater challenges to receive more funding. And recently, student-based budgeting got a boost from President Donald Trump, whose proposed budget includes $1 billion in incentives for school districts with poor students that make the switch.

Leaders with Shelby County Schools have been working for more than a year with Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based consulting organization, to lay the groundwork for the transition. The method already is being used in districts in Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver, Boston and Houston.

David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, said traditional budgeting models cater to the most politically savvy principals who find funds for academic programs and interventions in system loopholes. Student-based budgeting changes the dynamic to empower principals, making them more like CEOs than strict academicians. It also means principals will have to learn more about the complexities of budgeting.

“It works because you make it more flexible for schools and teams for how they see fit within parameters the district provides,” Rosenberg said.

During the next few months, the Memphis district will analyze how money is being allocated to its schools — which ones don’t have enough funds and which ones have too much under the new formula. The change will create winners and losers, and it’s the losers that concern some school board members.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson, finance chief of Shelby County Schools

The board is generally supportive of student-based budgeting and is scheduled next week to vote on a resolution endorsing it. But board members also want the transition to be as painless as possible in a district that they say is underfunded by the state.

Finance chief Lin Johnson reassured board members at a work session this week that the district can mitigate losses for schools with less money. Options include tapping a separate pool of money to lessen the shock and giving some schools an extra year for the transition.

“The goal is not to fund all schools equally, but equitably (and) to make sure the funding we have is meeting the unique needs of students,” he said. “We need to work with schools to provide training and examples, to give schools the support they need to maximize the resources that they have.”

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which fully switched to student-based budgeting 2015, about 60 percent of schools received more money than the previous year. The rest received the same amount.

In other districts, the model has had the effect of shaking up central office structures, increasing the need for fiscal oversight, and stretching principal capacity.

Below is a video from Nashville’s school district to explain how student-based budgeting was rolled out there.

Compromise

Teacher pay overhaul would establish merit pay, tackle salary inequities

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small, chief of human resources for Shelby County Schools, explains the district's proposal for a new teacher pay structure.

Since 2014, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has tried to establish a merit pay plan for teachers in Shelby County Schools but, for one reason or another, it’s eluded the district.

Now, his team is trying again — and they’ve come up with a proposal that they hope will help Tennessee’s largest district retain its most talented teachers, while also appealing to teachers that previously have balked at shifting to performance-based pay.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday would address inequities in the pay structure that have given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience for up to 10 years.

Any subsequent raises would be based on teacher evaluation scores of 3 to 5 on the state’s 1-to-5 model, which is based on classroom observations and student test scores.

The plan also would resurrect additional compensation for job-related advanced degrees — but only in the form of bonuses if the teachers rate 4 or 5. The same goes for hard-to-staff teaching positions such as in special education, math and science, as well as veteran teachers who have reached the district’s maximum salary, which would go from $72,000 to $73,000.

The overhaul would take effect next school year using $10.7 million earmarked in Hopson’s proposed $945 million spending plan for 2017-18. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget in April.

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is a high priority as Shelby County Schools seeks to boost test scores in low-performing schools with many poor students. And research shows teachers have the most influence on student achievement.

Trinette Small, chief of human resources, said the district has to keep its pay structure competitive to retain its most effective teachers, especially with six municipal school systems nearby.

“This is trying to get base pay stabilized,” Small told school board members during a budget review session. “This is an investment in teachers but this is something we can afford.”

In exit surveys, a fourth of high-performing teachers cited noncompetitive pay as their reason for leaving the district, she said. And most who left had the second-highest evaluation score.

The plan pleased school board members, and parts of it appeared to appeal to teachers unions, although its leaders still had some concerns.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said the new structure positions the district for a more stable learning environment.

“The big point about the change was to have (pay) merit-based and not just longevity-based because at a certain point, they plateau,” Caldwell said. “The main thing we got to worry about is student draining and teacher draining.”

School board member Mike Kernell said the plan should boost teacher morale by addressing inequities in the system. “I think by resetting this, we’re going to start seeing more experienced teachers at the right level starting to help the younger teachers without the resentment that you’re making $2,000 less,” he said

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, was mostly pleased with the proposal but took issue with tying pay for advanced degrees with evaluation scores. Teachers should be rewarded in their base pay for advanced degrees, not through bonuses, she said.

Rucker and Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, both said the initial leveling up should apply to all teachers on the former step schedule up to 17 years, instead of stopping at 10.

“If you’re going to abandon the schedule system, at least level everyone up,” Williams told Chalkbeat. “If it’s not going to benefit everybody, you might as well throw it in the trash.”

Small said the leveling up is meant to make teacher pay competitive with new hires. Since the district only incorporates up to 10 years of experience in pay for new teachers, the leveling up was limited to the same.

The New Teacher Project provided consultation on the district’s pay plan by gathering data, conducting focus groups and crafting the compensation model.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the district proposes to level up pay up to 10 years of experience.