Heading to court

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.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.