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.

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.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”