Shelby County Schools board calls for improved tracking system, discusses splitting property in demerger

Shelby County board members have asked district officials to provide a timeline and a cost estimate for an entirely revamped process for tracking its assets before the board’s next work session.

Last December, the first audit of Shelby County Schools’ possessions in years found over $48 million worth of assets missing.

Board member David Pickler says he’s surprised it wasn’t more: As it turns out, for three years, between 2005 and 2008, legacy Memphis City Schools was not properly tracking its items at all.

“If I wanted to order iPads for my buddies, I could have have ordered 210 instead of 200 and we wouldn’t have known,” said board chair Kevin Woods at a meeting of the Shelby County board’s audit committee Tuesday.

Board members Woods, Pickler, and Chris Caldwell were focused on next steps at Tuesday’s meeting. Both legacy Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools were missing items, according to the recent audit. The two districts were merged last July and are now preparing for the creation of six new school districts carved out of the boundaries of legacy Shelby County Schools and the transfer of buildings and objects to those new districts.

“My honest assessment is, all this inventory is not going to be found,” Woods said. He said the board should move forward to ensure that there was a better process in place.

Pickler supported Woods’ idea. “Instead of trying to beat the proverbial dead horse, we should put the focus on acknowledging that we have a problem, creating a solution, and as we’re doing that make sure we meet our legal obligations and other obligations, especially as we’re about to transfer 33 very large assets and hundreds of others,” Pickler said. Pickler was referring to plans to transfer 33 buildings to six new suburban school districts being formed in the Memphis suburbs.

Pickler said some of his goals were “to bring forward to the board and superintendent some recommendations about policy issues, procedures, and putting in place a system and transparency structure. Then I think we can eventually have a report of what we really have per school.”

Pickler previously encouraged district officials not to spend time defending against the findings, but rather to locate items and improve their process.

Board members told district officials they did want the names of personnel associated with various objects, to ensure there had been no wrongdoing.

Melvin Burgess, the district’s director of audit, said his department would prepare a timeline and estimate for board members. He said recommended a return to a centralized tracking process. “Right now everyone is buying everything and we’re not catching who’s buying what,” he said.

He said of tracking items, “I’ve been with the district 25 years, and some things I saw, it wasn’t even an issue of tracking. For instance, you might have a delivery of equipment in summertime. The deliveryman puts it in the office, it’s not manned, and it walks away. There are so many factors. We have badges now, but people don’t follow the rules sometimes.”

Board member Pickler said the district needed to change its culture and attitude toward tracking its assets. “We are a government agency…We need to move into latter part of 20th century with how we’re doing this.”

Board member Caldwell said,”We should commit funds if we need extra people to get this right.”

Pickler said he hoped the district would have a timeline by June 1, and a new system in place by the end of August, when the district’s board will turn over due to the creation of the new school districts.

Board members cited FedEx and Autozone as local organizations with expertise in tracking objects that might be able to advise the district.

Transfers to Municipalities

How to effectively transfer items from Shelby County Schools to the new municipal districts was also discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II will meet with superintendents from the municipal districts next week to discuss plans to separate the districts. “We’re referring to it as the reverse TPC,” Pickler said, referring to the Transition Planning Commission that facilitated the merger of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools.

Each of the 33 schools that will be transferred from Shelby County Schools to a municipal district next year provided a list of items currently in their buildings to the county school system. Those reports had not yet been cross-checked with the district’s own audit of the materials by Tuesday.

Those 33 buildings were the first to be audited, Burgess said.

Board members sought to clarify expectations and legal obligations as the items are transferred between districts. Caldwell recommended that the district seek legal advice and ensure that the district and municipalities communicated about expectations.

But they were clear that all items in the 33 schools would remain with the municipalities.

“We’re committed with this transfer of facilities that the items will remain with the kids they intended to serve,” Woods said.


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