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 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.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.