Game on

Citing ‘dire’ budget situation for Shelby County Schools, Hopson rallies employees for funding

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools in Memphis.

As budget season kicks off for Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is warning employees that the cash-strapped school system faces a “dire situation” and urging them to advocate for increased funding from county and state governments.

In a letter emailed late last week to 14,500 employees, Hopson said the district’s projected budget gap for next school year is about $40 million — a gap that will be hard to close without directly impacting classrooms.

“We’ve had to make very difficult decisions over the past few years to ensure our cuts do not affect the classroom, including closing schools with low enrollment, significantly reducing Central Office staff, outsourcing some District services and cutting more than $200 million out of the General Fund Budget, which could’ve been used to provide additional support to our students,” Hopson writes.

“… But this year could be different. Without significant funding from the Shelby County Commission or the State of Tennessee, it will be difficult to avoid cuts to our classrooms.”

Hopson will present his proposed spending plan during a school board work session this Wednesday, but emphasized that the proposed budget is not final and that “cuts can still be avoided.”

He encouraged employees to contact county commissioners and state lawmakers to ask for more funding. He also directed them to a website developed with community partners to serve as a hub of information during the process. The website, launched last week and titled “Students Deserve More!,” details what the district says is a lack of adequate investment from the city, county and state. It also gives an overview of potential cuts:

  • A decrease in benefits for educators and staff
  • Fewer assistant principals and building leaders at smaller schools
  • More school closures
  • Reduction in summer school offerings
  • Decrease in pay for substitute teachers
  • Adjusting mileage (distance) requirements for students receiving bus transportation
  • Outsourcing more district services
  • Eliminating more central office jobs (central office staff makes up less than 2 percent of the district’s budget, according to the website)

The Hopson-endorsed campaign reflects ongoing tension between the district and local and state governments over the adequacy of school funding, as well as the spending habits of school leaders. Increasingly across Tennessee, local government leaders say they’re picking up too much slack for the state when it comes to funding the true cost of K-12 education. Last August, Shelby County’s school board sued the state over its education funding plan known as the the Basic Education Program, or BEP, charging that the state is not equitably and adequately funding public education for all students. However, Gov. Bill Haslam says the state has been increasing education spending annually during his administration at a time when many state governments are cutting back.

In Shelby County, the “Students Deserve More!” campaign represents an escalated level of community organization beyond past efforts.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before coming from Shelby County Schools,” said state Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis. “I’m hoping it will at least be a beginning of getting parents involved in the process. … Between the state and county, we should be able to come up with a solution so that we don’t have our children suffering.”

Commission Chairman Terry Roland said the campaign won’t make much difference from his perspective, however.

“I’m making my decisions based on dollars and cents. We can’t break the county and give (the district) everything they want,” Roland said. “The state is causing this problem because the state is not fully funding the BEP.”

Roland said additional county dollars shouldn’t be needed when other cuts could be made, such as consolidating several schools that are under-enrolled. When Shelby County administrators went to the commission last year seeking an extra $14 million, they received about half of that.

“If you gave the schools every dime they asked for, it’s a never-ending hole and we’re not going to fill it,” Roland said. “You can’t keep asking for money when you can’t spend what you get right.”

County Mayor Mark Luttrell said late last week that he encourages community engagement about education but will reserve judgment about the district’s budget needs until he sees its final spending plan, scheduled to come before the commission on May 25.

“I’m hoping as they look at their needs, that deficit will be narrowed,” Luttrell said, adding that commissioners will have lots of questions. “It should be a healthy dialogue; it usually is.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.