School funding

Five things to know about Shelby County Schools’ pared-down budget

More than three months after Shelby County Schools began publicly building its 2015-16 budget, the long, arduous process reaches a milestone Monday when the Shelby County Commission is expected to vote on the county’s $1.1 billion spending plan, funneling about one-third of the amount to K-12 education.

The vote will come more than a month after the Shelby County Board of Education approved the district’s own spending plan — a $974 million budget that slashes $125 million — and requires approval from the County Commission.

Here are five things to know about the significance of the commission’s vote, as well as the financial challenges facing the district under a pared-down budget for next school year.

1. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is getting additional funding from the commission, but probably only about half what he requested.

Hopson and board members had asked commissioners to invest an extra $14.9 million in Shelby County Schools on top of the $381 million allotted based on student population.

During two appearances, they pled their case and were grilled by commissioners over their spending habits. Last week, the commission’s budget and finance committee recommended $7.9 million more for the county’s largest school district, about 10 percent of which would go to district-authorized charter schools and other schools operated by the state-run Achievement School District. The recommended budget also includes another $2.1 million to be distributed among the county’s six suburban municipal school districts.

An increase in funding for education likely will mean cuts to other county departments.

2. How the additional money will be spent is uncertain, since both Hopson and commission leaders have different ideas of what should take priority.

District leaders had asked for extra money to hire more reading intervention coaches, purchase computers for online testing, and recruit a marketing director to promote the district to parents, among other things. They argued that such investments would improve educational outcomes and bring more students back to the district, which has struggled under declining enrollment and related decreases in per-pupil state funding.

But commissioners are recommending that the district dedicate the extra money to ballooning retiree health insurance costs.

While the commission can’t dictate how the district spends its money, district leaders acknowledge the significance of the school system’s $1.4 billion liability for other post-employment benefits. The board is planning to discuss the issue at its June 10 workshop.

3. The district already has approved $125 million worth of cuts for next year.

To balance its budget, the Board of Education voted in April to eliminate 482 positions and outsource services such as school maintenance. At the same time, the district will keep the majority of its 8,000 teachers, who will receive step pay increases, and invest another $7 million in school turnaround efforts. The district also has closed three schools and is moving students out of three others that are being taken over by the state due to low test scores. To stave off more cuts, it will pull $25 million from its savings account.

The district is responding to significant changes in the county’s educational landscape in recent years. In 2013, the former Shelby County Schools merged with the former Memphis City Schools after a funding dispute — then fractured with the creation of six municipal districts in the county’s suburbs. The state also took control of 15 underperforming schools resulting in the loss of thousands of students, while per-pupil funding has remained flat. Meanwhile, costs associated with educating the county’s students — most of whom are poor and academically struggling — continue to climb.

The municipal districts — smaller and just a year old — also struggled financially this year after underestimating their upstart and operating costs and taxpayers’ willingness to pay for new buildings. Municipalities have responded by cutting back on cafeteria services and debating whether to build new schools as originally planned.

4.  The county is increasingly shouldering the cost of K-12 education to offset perceived underfunding by the state.

About one-fourth of the district’s funding comes from the county, with the state providing most of the rest.

County Commission spent almost a third of its total revenue and 60 percent of its collected property tax revenue — about $381 million — on education this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Another 12 percent went toward capital debt accrued through new school construction in the suburbs during the 1990s. On average, the commission has provided the district with $2,800 per student, up 30 percent from 2005.

Meanwhile, state funding levels have generally stagnated, except for some additional money pushed through the state legislature this year by Gov. Bill Haslam, mostly earmarked for teacher pay increases.

At one budget hearing this spring, school administrators complained that the state is increasingly shifting significant education costs onto the county. District leaders in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville also have asked their local funding bodies for more money this year, with Chattanooga’s Hamilton County seeking the biggest hike of 10 percent.

“What incentive does the state have to fully fund the (Basic Education Program) if we keep picking up their slack?” Commissioner David Reaves asked at one point. “We need to create a climate where there’s a burning need [for the state to fulfill its obligation].”

5. Shelby County Schools may take the state funding issue to court, and the county may join the lawsuit.

The Board of Education voted last week to hire an attorney to explore options to force the state to fully fund its BEP formula for funding public education.

District leaders say Shelby County Schools would net at least 103 million more state dollars annually under a fully funded BEP. As it is, the district is challenged to raise teacher pay, improve test scores and provide the innovations necessary to address gaps in student learning. Commissioners say they would consider backing such a lawsuit.

Hamilton County and six other small school districts in southeast Tennessee already have sued the state over the issue. The state’s attorneys have asked that their lawsuit be dismissed, arguing that it is based on a “profoundly flawed interpretation” of three successful previous lawsuits over BEP funding.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Follow the money

Audit: NYC issued $2.7 billion in noncompetitive education contracts — and often violates its own rules

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology in July.

The city’s education department routinely violated state law and its own policies in issuing contracts worth billions of dollars — mostly awarded without a competitive bidding process.

That’s according to a blistering audit released Friday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the first major audit to scrutinize contracting by the de Blasio education department. It found that the department issued $2.7 billion contracts without a competitive process in fiscal year 2016, or roughly 64 percent of all spending on contracts.

The education department routinely failed to properly oversee its vendors, paid them late, and often directed them to begin work before proper paperwork was filed with the comptroller’s office, according to the audit.

“This investigation shows that DOE acts as though the rules don’t matter,” Stringer said in a statement which included 20 recommendations to fix the process. “When it comes to contracting, this is an opaque agency that refuses to accept responsibility, that often uses inaccurate arguments to defend backwards organizational practices.”

Some highlights:

  • Out of 521 “limited competition” contracts, the city directed vendors to begin work before filing appropriate paperwork on 85 percent of them. In one case, a contract was filed two and a half years after the vendor began work.
  • The education department did not correct sloppy oversight of vendors, despite a 2015 audit that urged them to do so. In some cases, “there was no evidence the DOE conducted performance evaluations, as required by the DOE’s own procurement rules,” the audit found.
  • The DOE spent $2 million to pay for “goods or services that had already been improperly purchased in violation of DOE’s procurement rules.”

Stringer’s findings come less than a month after the comptroller blasted the city’s management of education technology in a separate audit that found the education department has lost track of thousands of computers and failed to create an appropriate tracking system for them. Stringer’s harsh criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department come shortly after endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.

The Bloomberg administration also faced sharp criticism for awarding contracts without soliciting competing bids. The administration’s critics said the mayor was inappropriately applying business practices to public spending. But Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, dismissed the criticism, saying he’d “never seen [an audit] that didn’t say you couldn’t follow procurement rules a little closer.”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said the city’s procurement process is “rigorous” and “many of this audit’s conclusions are incorrect.”

“We perform background checks on all vendors and post them online, maintain the appropriate documentation on procurements, and recently implemented an electronic performance evaluation system,” Mantell added.