Smaller IPS budget reflects changes following phantom deficit

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee called the budget he proposed to the Indianapolis Public School Board today the district’s first real budget in years.

The general fund for the upcoming year, which pays most of the district’s day-to-day bills, is much smaller it was — just $233 million for 2015. That’s down $30 million from the last budget, which was for $263 million. The difference is the exact amount Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the budget was inflated by in March when he shocked even the district’s own board members by announcing he had discovered the district’s frequently cited budget deficit actually did not exist.

It’s not a coincidence.

“I think it’s definitely more realistic,” Ferebee said. “This is a better alignment of our revenue and expenses.”

Ferebee, who came to IPS from North Carolina last September, said in March that he had spent part of his holiday break studying the district’s budget numbers and was stumped by how the district managed to claim for years that it had large deficits, often blaming cuts in state funding, when he calculated it would end 2013 with a small surplus of $8.4 million.

Ferebee said his investigation showed the district significantly over-budgeted every year for expenses including teachers, desegregation efforts, contract services and certified coaches. Subsequent audits performed by the Indiana State Board of Accounts and a national urban school advocacy group, the Council on the Great City Schools, agreed. Those groups found IPS had shoddy budget practices and failed to provide the school board with even the most basic financial data it needed.

In 2009, then-school board member Kelly Bentley had been denied a request to see more detailed budget documents by then-Superintendent Eugene White. Bentley has announced a campaign to regain a school board seat this fall.

In the wake of the audits, Ferebee named a new budget committee and charged it with helping find solutions to looming fiscal problems, which include steadily eroding state funding and a desire to raise salaries for teachers and other district employees who have seen few pay raises the past five years.

Ferebee cautioned tonight that the surplus was a bit misleading: most of it came when the district won a lawsuit against the state, which required IPS to be returned about $6 million in what the court determined were over payments to to outside companies the Indiana State Board of Education hired to run four failing IPS schools independently. The other $2 million of the surplus, he said, came primarily from job cuts, many of them in the central office.

With the Indiana legislature aiming to make state per student aid more equal, large city districts like IPS are getting less aid each year. Given that, and the narrowness of the gap between income and expenses last year, Ferebee cautioned that the district needs to stay in cost-cutting mode.

“In 2015 we know we have some reduced funding but we’ve made moves to reduce personnel,” he said.



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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.