School Finance

Shelby County School leaders review final budget plan as new fiscal year begins this week

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Board chairman Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson listen to a budget presentation in 2015.

Expecting less additional local funding than requested and more state and federal funding than anticipated, leaders of Shelby County Schools reviewed a revised budget Monday that proceeds with the purchase of student computers for online testing next year but adds fewer new reading coaches than outlined on the district’s wish list.

In a presentation before the Shelby County Board of Education, administrators cut eight of 15 items on their wish list, including hiring a marketing director to improve the school system’s image and upgrading its career and technical program equipment.

District leaders had hoped to fund their full wish list with an additional $14 million requested from the Shelby County Commission, but expect to receive only an extra $7.9 million, based on recommendations from the commission’s budget committee.

The district’s revised $986 million budget goes again before the commission’s budget committee Wednesday and is expected to be voted on by the full commission on July 7. Until then, the district, which begins its new fiscal year on Wednesday, will operate on a continuation budget.

While the last-minute changes represent a small percentage of the overall budget, they are necessary in reconciling the latest revenue numbers with the cash-strapped district’s spending plan for the 2015-16 school year — as school leaders wrap up the months-long budget process.

Revised budget revenues include $4 million more in state funds than anticipated and additional federal dollars that the district didn’t receive last year.

Based on conversations with principals across the district, administrators plan to make their largest investments in schools where students regularly miss school days, fail courses and fight in hallways.

“We’re going to use these dollars to spend on high-leverage investments,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the board.

The commission is obligated to distribute more than $300 million to the district through county property and sales tax revenues, but district leaders had sought extra local funding to help with extensive school turnaround efforts. Reluctant to raise taxes and questioning the district’s spending plan, commissioners settled on an extra $7.9 million and suggested that the additional money go toward the school system’s ballooning liability for Other Post Employment Benefits, known as OPEB and estimated at $1.5 billion. However, the commission doesn’t have legal authority over how the school system spends its money.

“Whatever they use it for, as long as they address the long-term issue with OPEB, I’m fine with them using it however way they think is best for education,” County Commissioner David Reaves, a former school board member, said Monday. “I don’t think the commission will hold them hostage in the future. The entire goal was to get them to take it seriously and address it and I think they’re taking those steps.”

The district, formed in the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and Legacy Shelby County Schools, has been beset by funding woes since its outset. It has lost thousands of students to school takeovers by the state-run Achievement School District, as well as the creation of six new suburban municipal school systems soon after the merger. For every student the district loses, it loses about $10,000 in state and local funding.

In April, the board voted to cut $125 million from its 2015-16 budget, including the closure of three schools, pulling hundreds of students from three other schools being taken over by the state, and the layoffs of more than 500 teachers. More than half of those teachers have since been hired back by the district.

To stave off further cuts, the board voted to pull $36 million out of its savings, leaving about $107 million in its savings account at the end of this fiscal year. By the end of next fiscal year, the district expects to have about $7 million in savings left, or 7 percent of its total budget.

View Monday’s budget presentation here.


Editor’s note: Clarifies in paragraphs 1-4 that the additional 30 new reading coaches would have been funded with extra funding requested from the county, and is separate from reading coaches already hired under the overall budget.

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: