liability liability

Changes to retiree benefits off the table for now, Hopson announces

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a forum in Memphis last summer before the Shelby County Board of Education to discuss proposed cost-cutting changes to their retirement plans.

Retired educators from Shelby County Schools won’t see their health benefits cut anytime soon, after the district tabled a proposal that would have passed along costs to retirees.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced that he was backing off on the proposal, which had drawn sharp protest from retirees, during a board meeting Tuesday evening. He instead asked the board to find other ways to reduce the district’s ballooning retirement benefits costs.

“I know how passionate you are about our retirees,” Hopson told board members. “We don’t want to place people we’ve made promises to in a bad position.”

Hundreds of retirees complained at a public forum earlier this month that the district was seeking to save money on the backs of sick senior citizens by breaking a promise made to new teachers decades ago.

Daisy Cleaves, the former president of the district’s Retired Teachers Association who has been an outspoken critic of the proposed changes, said she was relieved that cuts in benefits are off the table for now.

“I’m going to go up there and shake [Hopson’s] hand and thank him for giving me peace and love,” Cleaves said. “I’m glad they’re going to slow this process down. There was just so much stress and so much coming at us at once.”

The cash-strapped district is still under pressure to reduce the amount it’s on the hook to spend on retired employees’ health and life insurance, known as Other Post-Employment Benefits, or OPEB costs. The way the district’s insurance plan is structured, the district is not contributing enough to cover retirees’ real costs. Last year, the district faced $1.5 billion in liability, or possible costs, which it could have covered by contributing about $120 million to the insurance pool. But budget cuts because of declining student enrollment limited the district’s contribution to less than $30 million.

That gap has become a significant sticking point in the district’s efforts to manage its budget. After cutting $125 million from its 2015-2016 budget to cover other costs, Hopson asked the county last month for additional funds to support the district’s regular operations. Commissioners said any additional funds would have to go toward the retirement benefits.

Hopson is still recommending that the board not extend benefits after retirement to anyone who joins the district starting in July 2016. And the board could decide to resurrect the benefits cuts for current retirees — who number 8,000 — in the future.

Other options that Hopson has asked the board to consider included cutting retirees a check to shop and pay for their own insurance plan and switching retirees to a state plan whose costs are managed by having more participants. On Tuesday, the board also heard a recommendation that the district start making insurance payments into a trust fund so that interest over time could reduce liability costs.

Several board members have requested that they hire an outside consultant to help them determine the best option.

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.