School Finance

Shelby County Board of Education files funding lawsuit against state

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson discusses the district's school funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee as board members Chris Caldwell and Teresa Jones offer their support.

Declaring that “money makes a difference” when it comes to educating Tennessee’s public school students, the Shelby County Board of Education sued the state on Monday claiming that Tennessee isn’t adequately funding its schools, especially for its most vulnerable children.

In a 38-page suit filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, the Memphis-based district argues that the state has violated its constitutional duty to “equitably and adequately fund public school education for all students.”

The suit notes that Memphis and Shelby County have a disproportionately high number of students who are minorities, have disabilities and live in extreme poverty. “Because of the lack of funding, the District is unable to provide many of these impoverished, mainly-minority students with an education that would allow them to achieve the outcomes mandated by the Tennessee Constitution …” the suit says.

The lawsuit by Tennessee’s largest public school district adds significant weight to ongoing litigation over the adequacy and equity of education funding through the state’s Basic Education Plan, or BEP.

In March, the boards for seven school districts in southeast Tennessee, led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed a lawsuit charging that the state has created a system that “shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in substantially unequal educational opportunities across the State.” That lawsuit is pending, and the state has urged dismissal, arguing that the legislature has leeway in funding K-12 education.

Asked about the latest funding lawsuit on Monday, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam declined to comment on any pending litigation. A spokeswoman for Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also declined to comment. Both were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with members of the State Board of Education and state legislative leaders.

Shelby County School leaders held a morning news conference at Riverside School to explain why they are taking the state to court.

“We are asking the state to live up to its constitutional obligation,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “(Our students) deserve better than this. We want to give the type of education that our kids need and deserve.”

District leaders have argued that the state grossly miscalculates how much an average teacher costs and doesn’t take into account the financial impact of the growing charter school sector and a host of state-mandated reforms placed on large urban school districts.

If the state fully funded public schools, Shelby County Schools would get an extra $100 million in state funding annually, according to school board member Chris Caldwell.

All year, district leaders have explored the possibility of litigation and in June hired the Wichita-based office of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, a firm that has helped urban districts win a similar school funding lawsuit in Kansas.

In the meantime, the cash-strapped school system has cut more than $275 million from its budget in the last two years alone, resulting in the closings of 17 schools since 2013, teacher layoffs and increased class sizes. County government leaders say the county has largely picked up the state’s slack, allotting 60 percent of its budget toward public education across Shelby County.

“… We have had to constantly cut resources, lay off needed staff members, and remove programs that can help our students remain competitive,” said Teresa Jones, chairwoman of the Shelby County Board of Education. “In a time when academic and career standards are increasing, our students need more resources.”

The lawsuit contends that the district cuts are the result of inadequate state funding, forcing the district to break state constitutional mandates to provide an adequate education for its children. The suit blames the level of funding on some BEP components, combined with an under-appropriation of money to fully fund the formula.

District leaders predict the lawsuit could take years to wind through the court system and could cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, in legal fees. But board members and administrators said they are confident that the district will reap millions more back in a victory or settlement and set a legal precedent for all of the state’s 142 school districts.

The state annually distributes about $6 billion in tax revenue to local districts based on the BEP formula.

Haslam, who this year championed a $147 million increase in education spending across Tennessee to address BEP funding and increase teacher salaries, repeatedly has urged district leaders to engage the state in conversation instead of litigation.

 

Editor’s note: This story updates an earlier version to show that the lawsuit has been filed and to include subsequent comments from leaders of Shelby County Schools.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.