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.

Street talk

Memphis billboards urge city to start funding schools again

PHOTO: Stand for Children
A billboard campaign, paid for by Stand for Children, highlights an ongoing frustration among city, county and school leaders over education funding.

A week after Mayor Jim Strickland largely dismissed a new coalition’s call for a $10 million investment in education, the group is taking its message to Memphis billboards.

Fund Students First — comprised of elected officials, education advocates and public school leaders — posted two billboards Friday in high-trafficked streets in downtown and midtown Memphis. The campaign is being underwritten by Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group with offices in Memphis and Nashville.

One of the billboards reads:

The message plays off a controversial billboard campaign launched earlier this year by the local police union in an attempt to tie the city’s high murder rate to vacancies in the police department. Under Strickland’s proposed budget for next year, that department would receive a significant boost.

The other billboard says:

That message alludes to the mayor’s call for more job training for youth and young adults, even as the city has refused to set aside money that could be tapped by public schools.

The education campaign highlights frustration over years of tenuous funding for Memphis schools, but especially since the city school system voted to give up its charter in 2010 and merged with the suburban Shelby County Schools in 2013. County government is now the sole funding agent for consolidated Shelby County Schools, which last year prompted County Commissioner Terry Roland to refer to city government as a “deadbeat parent.”

Just before the consolidation, the city contributed $65 million annually to Memphis schools, which was about 5 percent of the district’s revenue. Next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools is $985 million.

This spring, education groups that often are at odds with each other formed the Fund Students First coalition, asking Strickland to put his money where his mouth is.

Elected in 2015, Strickland campaigned to make Memphis “brilliant at the basics” — a slogan that coalition members say should include public education.

“That should be a ‘basic’ of what we should have to do to move our city forward,” said Cardell Orrin, Stand for Children’s Memphis director.

Presenting his $680 million spending plan this week to City Council, Strickland mentioned youth first. He said his budget would restore Friday hours to libraries and expand teen programming, as well as maintain a summer job program for 1,400 students and add a literacy component for summer camps.

“First, and most importantly, the future of our city is only as strong as our young people,” Strickland said. “…Yet we know the No. 1 job of city government is to provide for public safety.”

The coalition has called for a direct city investment of at least $10 million to help pay for career and technical training for in-demand jobs, as well as after-school programs and social supports for potential dropouts. The group wants at least half of the money to be funneled through public schools and the rest through community programs.

PHOTO: Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland presents his proposed $680 million budget to City Council on April 25, 2017.

Strickland has said the city faces “serious and well-documented budget challenges” due to the gradual elimination of the state’s Hall income tax and required increases in the city’s pension fund. He added that Memphis taxpayers decided in a 2011 referendum that they did not want to be “double-taxed” by putting in money to education through both city and county coffers.

But Tomeka Hart, a former city schools board member and one of the architects of the merger, questioned Strickland’s framing.

“(Double-taxation) had nothing to do with the reason behind the merger,” she said. “They could fund the school system if they want to.”

Hart said the referendum was about protecting school funding from impending state legislation that would have allowed the county school system to wall off its funding in a “special school district,” similar to the current municipal school districts that ring the city. She said the double-taxation argument came up when City Council members wanted to cut school funding in 2008.

Strickland served on City Council at that time and was one of the original proponents of a $66 million cut to city funding for legacy Memphis City Schools. That cut sparked a lawsuit and a settlement that has the city still paying $1.3 million annually to Shelby County Schools. Last year, school and county officials chided the city government for paying nothing more.

The coalition has proposed that the city invest $10 million in a fund that would be managed by a nonprofit organization. That would prevent the city from being locked into giving that amount every year as mandated under a state law known as “maintenance of effort.”

Show me the money

Colorado Senate Republicans push charter school funding in annual school spending bill

Students at University Prep, a Denver Public Schools charter school, worked on classwork last winter. (Photo by Marc Piscoty)

An ongoing dispute over charter school funding in Colorado stole the spotlight Thursday as the Senate Education Committee deliberated a routine bill that divides state money among public schools.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, backed by his GOP colleagues, amended this year’s school finance legislation to include language that would require school districts to share revenue from locally-approved tax increases with charter schools.

The annual school finance bill takes how much money the state’s budget dedicates to education and sets an average amount per student. That money is then bundled for each of the state’s 178 school districts and state-authorized charter schools based on student enrollment and other factors.

Thursday’s charter school funding amendment is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 61, one of the most controversial education bills this session. The Senate previously approved the bill with bipartisan support. But House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has not assigned the bill to a committee yet.

“I do want to continue to pressure and keep the narrative up,” Hill said as he introduced amendment.

Democrats on the committee, who also vigorously opposed the charter school bill, objected.

“I consider it a hijacking move,” said Colorado Springs state Sen. Mike Merrifield.

A bipartisan group of senators last year attempted a similar tactic. While requiring that charters get a cut of local tax increase revenue did not go through, smaller items on the charter school community’s wish list were incorporated into the overall funding bill.

House Democrats this year will likely strip away the language when they debate the bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was not immediately available for comment. She’s the House sponsor of this year’s school finance bill. Pettersen voted to kill similar charter school funding legislation last year at the sponsors’ request. But this year she has been working on a compromise that Republicans have said they’re open to discussing.

Senate Republicans on Thursday also approved an amendment that would prevent the state’s education funding shortfall from growing this year.

The amendment takes $9.6 million from a school health professionals grant program, $16.3 million from an affordable housing program and about $22.8 million from the state education fund and gives it to schools.

Democrats on the Senate committee opposed the changes. They said the money, especially for school health professionals was important.

“Counseling, health programs, are all essentials,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat. “It’s not icing on the cake.”

The governor’s office also is likely to push back on that amendment. The governor’s office lobbied heavily during the budget debate for the $16.3 million for affordable housing.

Hill said that he tried to identify sources of revenue that were increases to current programs or new programs so that no department would face cuts.

No one will be fired with these changes, he said.

“I want to send a message that we’ll do everything in our power to prioritize school funding and not increase the negative factor,” he said referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Hill’s amendment means schools will receive an additional $57 per student, according to a legislative analyst.

While Thursday’s hearing was a crucial step in finalizing funding for schools, the conversation is far from over. Some observers don’t expect resolution until the last days of the session.

The state’s budget is not yet complete, although budget writers took a critical final step as the education committee was meeting. The death of a transportation bill died would allow lawmakers to some money away from schools and spend it on roads, but that is unlikely. Negotiations on a compromise on a bill to save rural hospitals, which also includes money for roads and schools, are ongoing.

And late Thursday, the state budget committee approved a technical change to the budget that could free up even more money for schools after learning cuts to personal property taxes that help pay for schools were not as severe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Brittany Pettersen voted against a bill to equalize charter school funding. She has not voted on the bill yet. She voted against a similar measure last year.