redundant reporting?

Advocates turn up pressure as city mulls overcrowding tallies

A citywide effort to make government more efficient has prompted the Department of Education to propose eliminating a handful of the data reports it compiles each year. But as a vote on the proposal approaches, opponents are ratcheting up the pressure in hopes it will not pass.

In 2010, voters approved a referendum to create the Report and Advisory Board Review Commission, which would identify “outdated or redundant” functions in city agencies. Each city agency was asked to suggest ways to trim its oprerations without disrupting government services.

The education department recommended that it report class sizes once a year instead of twice and eliminate one place where it compiles the number of classrooms held in trailers.

That proposal joined 12 other reports that the seven-member commission recommended eliminating at its first meeting in February. The commission, to which the majority of members were appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, also recommended eliminating seven regulatory boards that currently operate in the city.

The commission was supposed to take a final look at the recommendations on Oct. 30, in a meeting that has been rescheduled for Nov. 19 because of a scheduling conflict. Comptroller John Liu and other education advocates say they hope the commission will use the extra time to reconsider the Department of Education’s proposal, which they characterized as an effort to cover up overcrowding issues.

“The DOE’s desire to keep parents and students in the dark about class size is an affront to anyone who cares about the quality of our public schools,” Liu said in a statement earlier this week.

Department officials want to eliminate the first of two annual class size reports that they have compiled since 2005.  The department releases class size numbers once in November, based on Oct. 31 enrollment, and once in February, based on Jan. 31 enrollment.

The Oct. 31 data is based on each school’s audited register, which the city uses for its own accountability reports, to allot school space, and to receive state aid reimbursement.

But in a slideshow presentation outlining the proposal, department officials said the data was “not as refined” as the Jan. 31 data. The February report, they said, would suffice.

The department also wants to eliminate a requirement to report the number of temporary classroom units — trailers, mostly  — that schools are using. The department said that report is redundant since it keeps track of the trailers in different reports about school space utilization.

Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson, who advocates for smaller class sizes, said the Oct. 31 class size data is more meaningful than the Jan. 31 numbers because it comes earlier in the year. She said the February report would fail to account for high school students who leave the school system toward the end of the first semester of school.

“The DOE wants to delay reporting class sizes until January because classes are smaller as a result of thousands of students having dropped out or been discharged by then,” Haimson said. She said the January reports show class sizes that are, on average, 4 percent smaller than the November reports.

Class size has been a thorn in the side of the Bloomberg administration. Parents consistently say that lowering class sizes is a top priority, but sizes have steadily increased in recent years as school budgets have gotten tighter. This year, average K-3 class sizes topped out at 24 students, up from 21 in 2007, according to Liu’s office. And the union identified 6,220 classes in 670 schools that were over their contractual limits during the first weeks of the school year.

Additionally, the department committed to remove all temporary classroom units by 2009 as part of its 2005-2009 capital plan.  But that did not happen. There are currently 363 trailers operating as classrooms in the city, down from 368 in 2005, according to Liu’s office, and the department has more recently committed to decreasing the number of units by more than 10 per year.

City officials did not respond to specific requests for comment, but insisted that no decisions on proposals will be made until the commission first makes recommendations, which was postponed to Nov. 12, a week before the vote.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede