Five things

Budget cuts loom for Shelby County Schools, again — here’s what we know

Faced with annual budget cuts since becoming a unified district in 2013, Shelby County Schools has managed to keep most cuts from directly impacting classrooms.

Next school year will be different, says Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

“There’s nowhere else to cut but the classrooms,” Hopson warned board members last week as he stared at an $86 million projected shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

This Wednesday, Hopson will outline his proposed cuts during a school board work session, kicking off a two-month process to hone the district’s spending plan. District leaders are scheduled to present their 2016-17 budget on May 25 to the Shelby County Commission, which approves local funding.

Here are five things we know going into the process:

  1. The next round of cuts are likely to be the most painful yet. On its studentsdeservemore.com website launched last week, the district offered an eight-point list of potential cuts, including decreasing teacher benefits, eliminating assistant principal positions at smaller schools, and closing more schools. Also on the table: fewer summer school courses, decreasing pay for substitute teachers, and shrinking the maximum distance for students receiving bus transportation.
  2. The starting numbers have gotten worse, not better, though they’re still better than where the process began last year. Next year’s shortfall, projected last fall at $72 million, is now up to $86 million. Hopson already has identified $50 million worth of cuts, leaving a gap of $36 million to address. This time last year, the district faced a deficit of $125 million, which it resolved through cost-cutting measures such as eliminating 482 positions and outsourcing services such as maintenance.
  3. Much of the cost-cutting is being driven by shrinking enrollment. And enrollment — and the money that follows it — are getting harder to predict. In 2013, the newly merged district had nearly 150,000 students, but enrollment is now at 110,000. The district took a large hit in 2014 when six suburban municipalities seceded from Shelby County Schools by creating their own school systems. It’s also steadily lost students to the state-run Achievement School District, which has taken control of 27 low-performing Memphis schools since 2011 and will add four more next fall. In addition, Memphis has a high rate of mobility. To address the student shrinkage, 20 Memphis schools have been shuttered since 2012, and the board recently voted to close another school next year due to under-enrollment. District staff also are developing a five-year school closing plan to present to the board next fall.
  4. And it doesn’t help that the $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is scheduled to dry up this year. Since receiving its first check in late 2009, the district has received quarterly payments from the landmark grant to support its teacher and principal quality improvement work. But with the last of that money due to be allocated this year, the district must decide whether or how to continue that work. Potentially exacerbating the situation, Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed changes to the state’s education funding formula that could decrease state money that the district has enjoyed to boost teacher salaries because, locally, private sector wages significantly outweigh government job wages. Last year, Shelby County Schools received almost $31 million for that purpose.
  5. The final budget will almost certainly look different from the starting point. Hopson is expected to recommend that the board ask the County Commission for increased local funding — again. And, in an unprecedented move, the district has developed a website as a hub for rallying employees, parents and community members to advocate for additional funding from both the county and the state. Last year, the board received about half of the additional $14 million requested from the county, on top of its regular allocation based on the funding rate. At the time, commissioners grilled administrators about their spending habits and expressed frustration that local governments are increasingly being asked to pick up the slack for the state when it comes to adequately funding schools. That sentiment doesn’t appear to have changed. Asked about the prospects of the commission voting to fund this year’s $36 million gap, David Reaves, the commissioner’s education committee chairman, offered a quick summation. “Highly unlikely,” he said.

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.