albany report

Advocates' "fact-finding" tour uncovers inequities as budget talks heat up

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

ALBANY — State lawmakers, funding advocates, and school district superintendents revisited a top education priority on Monday, urging a big boost in state school aid as budget negotiations heat up.

A recent “fact-finding” tour of 14 cash-strapped districts turned up instances where schools replaced elective classes with study hall periods to fill out the school day, or where Spanish and music instruction had become an either-or proposition. During a press conference to announce the results today, superintendents spoke of large class sizes and cuts to academic intervention for struggling students.

The tour — which did not include New York City schools — was organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that is calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase state school aid by $1.9 billion this year.

The extra money would go primarily to the highest-need districts, which AQE says would begin to put New York back on track after the economic recession toward meeting legally mandated funding responsibilities for low-income students.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to see state aid increased to the city, where more than 70 percent of students are considered poor, but he has focused most of his public lobbying in Albany on winning the right to raise taxes on the city’s highest earners to pay for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.

But dozens of Democratic lawmakers, including Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan, have called for the $1.9 billion increase, which is more than double what Cuomo proposed in his budget.

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, and Senate, where power is shared between Democrats and Republicans, are preparing budget bills that are scheduled to be voted on March 12. State law requires them to negotiate a final budget with Cuomo by the end of the month, and school funding could wind up playing a role in the deal-making.

The funding issue sits alongside other contentious education policy issues being debated this legislative session, including funding for pre-K, possible changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law, and support for charter schools. Nolan said fixing the way the state funds low-income districts was something “we need to do to make sure that our children have what we want to see for them.”



Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.