mystery money

IBO: City's charter school spending estimates miss mark, again

PHOTO: Ron Coleman

The city has underestimated the amount of money it will have to hand off to charter schools next year by $28 million, according to the Independent Budget Office.

The possible deficit could leave the city millions of dollars in the hole if it doesn’t tweak its projections before the budget gets enacted at the end of the month, IBO Chief Ronnie Lowenstein told City Council members on Friday.

The funds at issue come from the state, which funnels money for education into the city’s budget. When a city student enrolls in a charter school rather than a district school, state law requires the city to turn over its per-pupil expenditure—$13,777 per student next year—to the charter school.

One piece of the spending discrepancy, which neither the city nor the IBO could fully explain, stems from a disagreement over how many students will actually be attending charter schools next year, and thus how much money the city will need to hand over. The IBO’s estimate is 1,100 more students than what the city expects—a $15 million difference.

Charter school enrollment is expected to increase from about 70,000 this year to, roughly, 83,000 next year. Charter school spending constitutes about $1.3 billion of the city’s proposed $20.6 billion operating budget.

It’s not unusual for the city’s number-crunchers to wildly miscalculate charter school spending for the coming year. But usually, the oversight occurs earlier in the year and gets corrected by the time a final budget is proposed in May.

Last year, for instance, the Department of Education was initially off by $140 million. The year before that, the city was off by more than $70 million.

In the past, city officials said the discrepancy was caused by the timing of the budget process. With dozens of charter schools adding grades each year, they said the initial budgeting phases were too early to factor in all of the students who would be added to those schools’ rosters in the future.

“At that time, we still don’t know the full extent of how the charters are phasing in,” former Chief Financial Officer Michael Tragale said last year.

But the city apparently still hasn’t accounted for all of the students who will be added to charter schools next year. Even after the city added nearly $100 million to its initial charter school enrollment projections, the IBO still insists the city is off.

“By our estimates, they didn’t add quite enough,” said IBO spokesman Doug Turetsky.

A Department of Education spokeswoman stood by the city’s estimates. But Turetsky noted the IBO’s numbers on charter school enrollment have historically been more reliable.

Neither side could explain the remaining $13 million difference in their charter spending estimates. Turetsky said that IBO’s analysts usually take into account money that follows charter school students who receive special education services, though he didn’t think that figure would come close to $13 million.

In any event, Turetsky said he expected the problem to be resolved before the city officially enacts the budget at the end of the month.

“I’d go back to the fact that in the past [the budget office] has added funds to come into line with our projections,” Turetsky said. “I expect history will repeat.”

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defensor escolar

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.