Who Is In Charge

Municipal superintendents cite challenges, benefits of split from Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

With their first school year complete, the superintendents of six municipal districts identified funding as their biggest challenge in stabilizing and developing the suburban ring around Memphis that opted in 2013 to break off from newly merged Shelby County Schools.

The superintendents reported on their districts’ status on Thursday during a summer study session on K-12 education by state lawmakers in the House of Representatives.

Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper was especially vocal about the challenges ahead for his district, which has struggled to repair its buildings and deal with a high teacher turnover rate. At Millington’s four schools, three had new principals during its first year of operation, and there was a 50 percent teacher turnover rate at its middle and high schools.

“It will take time until we get our staff on stable footing,” said Roper, who described his north Shelby County community as blue-collar with many low-income families.

Millington City Council just approved about $1 million in budget cuts, or 5 percent of the district’s budget, for the upcoming school year. “That’s going to affect our ability to build up the fund balance that we all need as newly created school districts,” Roper said. “You start off with a fund balance of zero. We all started out with a central office staff of one, and that was each one of us, and we had to build from there.”

After breaking off from the state’s largest school district, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching a new school system. The new districts are in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington, each previously part of the legacy Shelby County district.

The cities began to spin off and create their own districts after Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter, beginning a merger with legacy Shelby County Schools. (See Chalkbeat’s in-depth coverage of the merger, the municipalities split and the breakdown of the municipalities by the numbers).

After fighting legal battles with Shelby County and the city of Memphis, which brought lawsuits alleging that the creation of the new municipal districts was racially motivated, the municipalities opened their doors last August.

“There were those skeptical of six municipal school districts starting at one time,” said Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett). “These (superintendents) are responsible for making a difficult task not as difficult. But to say that there aren’t still rough hills to climb would not be proper.”

Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science at Rhodes College and author of “Opportunity Lost,” a book about the former Memphis City Schools, said the municipalities had optimistic projections of what it was going to cost to run their own school systems.

“One by one, they are realizing they need capital money,” Pohlmann told Chalkbeat in Memphis ahead of Thursday’s meeting. “If they want to be top-level school systems, and attract top-level teachers, it’s going to end up costing more local money.”

Lakeland officials have sparred with its residents over how to fund new school buildings. The city’s original plan, which would have built a $50 million combination middle and high school, was defeated in a referendum last April following opposition by a group called the Concerned Citizens of Lakeland.

City commissioners later approved construction of a middle school for grades 5-8 and a 55-cent property tax hike to cover the estimated $20 million cost.

The Lakeland School System is the smallest municipal district, with only one elementary school and 810 students enrolled. It sends its 1,200 older students to middle and high schools in Arlington and Bartlett, said Lakeland Schools director Ted Horrell.

“Those relationships and partnerships were critical to Lakeland being able to have its own school system,” Horrell said. “We’re the school system that everyone looked at and said, if anyone can’t do it, it’s them with one school. But we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the partnership of my colleagues here and the support from our legislators.”

David Stephens, director of Bartlett City School District, cited greater local control and community support as a positive outcome of the split. The goal, he said, is to see all students, including those in Shelby County Schools, improve.

“We want to create a lot of competition,” Stephens said. “A rising tide is going to raise all boats. We all have open enrollment, so there’s that competition of trying to draw students in.”

All municipalities reported that students had enrolled from outside of their districts, some even from outside of Shelby County.

Tammy Mason, director of Arlington Community Schools, said her schools have the highest number of non-resident students out of all the municipal districts. Out of 600 students not within Arlington’s boundaries, 100 come from Fayette County and pay a tuition of about $1,200 to 1,300 a year to attend, she said. Only students from outside of Shelby County have to pay.

“One of the big win-wins in creating municipal districts is giving parents more choice,” Mason said, adding that former private school students are also moving to the municipal public schools.

Several superintendents said they are pleased with their district’s test academic results for this year, which will be released later this month. But Mason cautioned that next school year’s change in Tennessee’s assessment will pose challenges.

“If we really want to move forward, we have to have stability over time in what our assessments look like,” Mason said. “Our students are probably doing way better than they were three years ago, but with the constantly changing standards and assessments, no one really knows.”

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) commended the superintendents for their work. “Whenever the city of Memphis gave up their charter a few years back, it destabilized a lot of happy parents,” said White, as he pointed to a map that etches out the new municipal districts in Shelby County. “Now, you see an eastern border with happy families in good school systems. That’s what’s going to stabilize Shelby County.”

Pohlmann said school funding and facilities will remain challenges for the new districts,  but that “eventually they will have to address the big elephant in the room, and that’s race.”

“There are sizable African-American populations in those schools, and I don’t know if there’s a single African-American on any of the six school boards,” Pohlmann said. “That’s not going to cut it. They aren’t cookie cutter; their kids have different needs and backgrounds, and their schools are becoming more diverse each year.”

While school demographics were not discussed during Thursday’s legislative update, Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) asked the superintendents to provide the review committee with demographic information.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.