down to the wire

Board hedges on Memphis school closing plan during final budget vote

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
From left: Board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and board member Scott McCormick

One Memphis school targeted for closure will stay open an extra year, while a second school also may get a reprieve after the school board tweaked and approved Shelby County Schools’ $954 million general fund budget for next year.

The 5-3-1 vote Monday to amend Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s school closing plan means that Northside High School will be shuttered at the end of the 2016-17 school year instead of this year.

Board members also agreed to delay a vote on closing Carver High School until they can examine a community report that outlines alternatives for keeping the 59-year-old downtown-area school open.

The votes came as the board finalized its 2016-17 spending plan, which includes a 3 percent raise for top-tier teachers and a switch to a yet-to-be-determined health insurance plan for employees and retirees.

The approved budget, which includes a $35 million funding gap, means the board will ask the Shelby County Commission to make up the difference, even though several commissioners have previously indicated that’s too tall of an ask. District leaders are scheduled to present their budget to the commission on May 25.

But board member Stephanie Love said the district should ask for even more to avoid the $45 million in cuts included in the approved budget. “Let the County Commission tell us they don’t want to fully fund what we need,” she said. “Let them tell us no.”

Hopson hopes the decision to close two other schools and switch insurance plans demonstrates that the district “is not afraid to make tough decisions.”

“Given the markers of success, and given the tough decisions that we made, [we hope] that the County Commission will find it wise to provide for these kids,” Hopson said after the meeting.

The board had approved closing Northside and Carver last month on a preliminary vote, but shuttering a district-run school requires two votes. With little discussion and no explanation, Chairwoman Teresa Jones moved to amend Hopson’s closing plan for Northside, while board member Mike Kernell moved to delay a decision on Carver.

Northside High School
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Hopson said later that the decision to delay closing Northside was out of “sensitivity” to neighborhoods where community meetings have been held in recent weeks. “While I didn’t necessarily anticipate this, I do think it’s consistent with our board being thoughtful,” he said.

Both Carver and Northside are on Tennessee’s list of priority schools, which are the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. Hopson recommended the closures last month as part of a cost-saving and efficiency plan to shutter schools that are under-enrolled and low-performing.

Administrators had estimated that the closings of Northside and Carver would save the district $1.7 million to help bridge the funding gap, but Hopson said the district should be able to make up the difference elsewhere.

As approved, the budget means the district will follow the advice of County Commissioner Eddie Jones, who last week invited the school board to bring all of their needs to the table.

“Before you cut anything, come ask for everything,” Jones said during a community meeting at Carver. “Come ask for what you need. As I’m learning, there’s money available. … It’s not can we do it, but will we do it?”

Jones has suggested that the full $32 million generated by the county’s wheel tax should go toward school operations instead of the current $16 million allocation for capital improvements. Shelby County Schools would get 78 percent of that total, which would be split with other districts in the county.

Jones’ remarks fly in the face of previous comments from other commissioners, who frequently have urged Shelby County Schools to close under-utilized schools.

The closure delays prompted Commissioner David Reaves, who is also a former school board member, to tweet during the meeting:

The 3 percent raises for teachers would apply only to teachers who receive evaluation scores of 3 to 5, but union representatives balked at that condition.

“The cost of living has had an impact on every teacher in the system, not certain ones,” said Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

Association president Patricia Scarborough added that the evaluation system is “flawed.”

It’s still unclear how many jobs will be lost under the approved budget.

The public got its first chance to review the full budget three days before approval when district leaders published it online Friday evening. The highlights were presented during school board budget review sessions during the last six weeks, but teacher raises were proposed less than a week before approval.

“This is the most distressing budget process I’ve seen,” Williams said. “It has been piecemeal out to the public.”

The $35 million spending gap is just $1 million less than the gap that the district started out with in its initial budget presentation to the board last month.

Though changes to benefits have not been finalized, the proposed plan that would begin Jan. 1 includes retirees increasing their cost share from 30 to 50 percent. Yvonne Acey, president-elect of the Shelby County Retired Teachers Association, said the impact on retirees with fixed incomes would be “tremendous.”

“Our incomes are low; our prescriptions are high,” she said. “We don’t want any changes.”

Administrators said the planned switch would save up to $10 million, which is included in the approved budget.


Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”