fuzzy math

Budget uncertainty looms as Shelby County school board enters final review

Tennessee’s largest school district is honing in on a reduced $941 million budget for its fiscal year beginning July 1, but the process thus far has been clouded by a lack of specifics behind various cuts floated by administrators.

After a month of wrangling, and with only about two weeks left to present a final spending plan to the Shelby County Commission, the school board for Shelby County Schools heads into its final budget review Wednesday with more questions than answers shared in public forums. A vote is scheduled for next Monday.

The process began in early April as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson declared a projected $86 million deficit — with nowhere to cut but the classroom — and outlined $50 million in proposed cuts, with the hope that the County Commission would cover the remaining $36 million shortfall. The cuts included several prized programs that no one, including Hopson, expected to stick due to the academic gains they’ve fostered and the built-in constituencies that immediately protested. In the ensuing weeks, the school board voted to close six more schools to protect those programs, but few details about the overall budget have emerged since.

At a community budget meeting on Monday, Hopson disclosed without explanation that the gap between proposed cuts and the remaining shortfall has been reduced from $36 million to $28 million.

But even the reduced shortfall is far more than county officials have indicated a willingness to cover. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell is proposing a funding increase of only $8.7 million for the county’s seven school districts, of which Shelby County Schools would receive about 78 percent.

Numerous other questions about Shelby County Schools’ budget remain going into the homestretch:

  1. Will teachers get a raise? The perennial topic wasn’t discussed by board members during budget meetings, but Chairwoman Teresa Jones said Monday that the board is committed to giving teachers a salary increase of between a 1 to 3 percent, depending on how much the County Commission is willing to increase funding to the district.
  2. How many people could lose their jobs? When Hopson first proposed $50 million in cuts, the administration listed a summary of areas to cut including some special education teachers, career and technical education instructors, world language teachers, and employees providing educational services to students in juvenile detention. Some of those positions are vacant, others are not. But district leaders have yet to disclose the total number of employees who would lose their jobs if the current spending plan is approved.
  3. How would proposed changes to the district’s employee health insurance plan impact teachers and retirees? Throughout the process, the one constant has been an assumption that the district would adopt a cost-saving plan similar to that used by Shelby County government. Hopson said last month that the plan has “much higher deductibles” than the district’s current plan but significantly lower premiums, which would translate into higher take-home pay for employees. On Monday, Jones called the drop in premiums “marginal” and said retirees likely would be most impacted under the proposed change. The district has not disclosed specifics.
  4. Are the savings from recently approved school closures enough to offset the initial proposed cuts for the Innovation Zone, CLUE and guidance counselors? The speedy decision to begin closure processes for three district-run schools and revoke the charters of three others was based not only on the poor academic record of the schools but also cost savings to restore funding for the CLUE program for gifted students, the iZone school turnaround initiative and guidance counselors. But the original proposal was to close 10 schools at an estimated savings of up to $8 million, and administrators have not provided a new estimate for closing only six. The original cuts to CLUE, the iZone and guidance counselors totaled $7 million.

From the beginning, the budget process has been short on publicly shared details. Reporters’ repeated attempts to obtain a copy of the initial proposed spending plan have been dismissed as the district cites ongoing changes to the proposals.

“In the first meeting, (Chief Academic Officer Heidi) Ramirez laid out all of the proposed cuts that we were facing at the time, and we were basically throwing things up in the air, if you will, so we could get a really good feel from board members as far as what they would support and what they wouldn’t,” explained district spokeswoman Natalia Powers.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents a budget update to a small audience Monday.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents a budget update to a small audience Monday.

Asked for specifics about cost savings from school closures, Powers referred to an explanation from district finance chief Lin Johnson. “… Along this process, there’s a lot of cleanup that takes place, in the sense that just little things that are found along the way that adjust and change the numbers a little bit,” she said.

At Monday’s community budget session, the lack of specifics was problematic for Aleace Scott, a kindergarten teacher at Hickory Ridge Elementary School and one of the few people to show up. She said she tries to keep up with school board decisions, but thinks teachers won’t have complete information before a budget is approved.

“Now, all I hear about the budget is what you’re cutting,” she said of the district. “We need to be involved in the whole process, not just when you’re talking cuts… (District leaders) need to be more transparent about what’s going on.”

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.

About 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.

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.

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 broiler repairs on their own.

“We are not working with SCS because they don’t handle HVAC issues that are less than $25,000” maintenance director, Erica Williams told Chalkbeat in an email.

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.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.

Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.