Budget forecast

Shelby County Schools faces $72 million shortfall next school year, Hopson says

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has led Tennessee's largest school district since 2013.

Only months after shepherding in $125 million in budget cuts for the current fiscal year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is warning district officials that lean times and difficult decisions await Tennessee’s largest school system again during the next year.

In a presentation before the school board Tuesday evening, Hopson outlined the district’s financial forecast for 2016-17, anticipating a $72 million shortfall.

Among the challenges:

  • A shortfall in per-pupil funding under the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) due to a decrease in enrollment as the state-run Achievement School District continues to expand in Memphis;
  • Cost of personnel benefits is expected to increase another $7 million;
  • The depletion of the $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, awarded beginning in 2009 to address teacher effectiveness.

“I don’t want to sound an alarm bell,” Hopson said, “but it just shows the work we have to do to get to where we need to be.”

Last spring, the school board approved $125 million in budget cuts to offset shrinking enrollment, decreasing tax revenue and increasing pension fund obligations, among other things.

Budget woes have plagued the district since its creation in 2013 with the merger of Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools. Administrators have responded by closing 17 schools over the last three years, outsourcing services such as bus transportation and custodial work, and reducing its workforce of teachers and central office staff.

Hopson has said he’s tried to keep the cuts from reaching the classroom level, but that it’s getting harder and harder.

“It just puts such a burden on particularly our teachers and parents when we have to figure out how we’re going to cut $50, $60, $70 million,” Hopson told the board.

Less than four months into the current fiscal year, the district faces more immediate challenges, though.

The superintendent expects a $7.9 million shortfall in BEP funding for 2015-16, a decrease that Hopson attributes to the ASD’s absorption of students previously with Shelby County Schools. Under state law, the ASD can take over schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools in terms of academic performance, most of which are located in Memphis. This school year, Shelby County Schools’ enrollment of 93,501 is 1,100 less than projected. The ASD already operates 27 schools in Memphis and has proposed taking over six more next year. ASD officials have said state intervention is necessary to address chronic academic underperformance.

Hopson said Shelby County Schools also needs this year an additional $5.5 million to help cover a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for the district’s 8,000 teachers, after having already invested in step-increases for teacher pay for the same amount. Additionally, the district still must address reductions needed to its swelling $1.5 billion liability for employee retirement benefits.

While the cuts ahead are challenging, Hopson reminded the board that the district has a blueprint to help guide its choices. Spending is tied to five priority areas under its Destination 2025 vision plan:

  • Strengthening early literacy
  • Increasing support to the district’s priority schools and improving post-secondary readiness
  • Developing teachers and central office staff to drive student success
  • Expanding high-quality school options
  • Mobilizing family and community partners

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede