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.

Following the money

Tennessee school systems are getting the money they’re promised — more or less, state comptroller reports

A comprehensive review of funding for Tennessee schools found that almost every district received either too much or too little money this year based on the state’s formula for educating its children.

But in a budget of $4.5 billion for K-12 schools, the mistaken allocations were relatively small, and the review ostensibly verified that districts are receiving roughly what they’re supposed to under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The state comptroller’s report, released Thursday, said that allocations were slightly off for 141 out of 142 BEP-funded districts, based on the review by its Office of Research and Education Accountability. The discrepancies were mostly due to how districts reported their data on local funding capacity.

As a result, the state over-allocated almost $7 million and under-allocated almost $10 million. A spokeswoman said the Department of Education already has adjusted distributions accordingly.

This is the second year that the comptroller — charged with making sure that taxpayer money is used effectively and efficiently — has reviewed state spending on schools to make sure that allocations are in line with the BEP, a complex formula based on 45 components ranging from special education instruction to staff benefits and insurance.

“We spend over 4.5 billion state dollars on BEP, and it’s an enormous amount of money,” said Russell Moore, who directs the comptroller’s education oversight arm known as OREA. “That’s why Comptroller (Justin) Wilson has repeatedly emphasized the importance of making BEP spending transparent, understandable and verifiable.”

On that note, OREA has updated its interactive BEP calculator to allow anyone to estimate how changing components or ratios under the formula affect funding. For instance, how much would the state contribute toward adding school nurses under the BEP? The calculator, available for download on OREA’s website, provides a line-by-line breakdown of the BEP calculation for every school district.

trumped up problems

As budget talks begin, top New York lawmaker eyes cuts from Washington

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

It’s Washington politics — not Albany’s — that are keeping state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie up at night as he girds himself for New York’s coming budget season.

New York is facing its own $4.4 billion budget deficit amid ongoing power struggles in Albany. Yet it’s the tax overhaul being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, along with possible federal spending cuts — both of which could take a bite out of funding for New York schools — that are worrying Heastie, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and is closely aligned with the New York City teachers union.

“Absent any other federal action that can do damage, I think we can manage that so that our schools will be fine and our healthcare can be fine,” he said Tuesday during a preview of next year’s legislative session hosted by the union. “It’s the unknown of what’s going to happen. What’s the next bad thing that Washington is looking to do.”

He was speaking at the union’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District, where he was interviewed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew as part of an ongoing discussion series. (Critics were quick to pounce on the event as evidence that Heastie does the union’s bidding.)

Heastie — who will negotiate the state budget with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate — has championed union issues in Albany. He supports the creation of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families, and has been less friendly to charter schools than his counterparts in the Senate.

During the discussion, Heastie did not say how much funding he would like to see allocated to education in the 2018-19 budget. But he noted that Cuomo typically builds a roughly billion-dollar increase to school aid into his budget — and that the Democratic-controlled Assembly usually looks to add more.

The state’s top education policymakers, the Board of Regents, released a budget proposal on Monday calling for a $1.6 billion increase in education spending. That is significantly less than their request last year, a sign they are nervous about the current budget climate.

Despite the funding uncertainty, Heastie can at least breathe a sigh of relief that he will not have to battle again this year to keep a different ally — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in charge of the city schools. For the first time, de Blasio secured a two-year extension of mayoral control last year, giving him and his backers a break from a fight that consumed the last three sessions.

Instead, charter-school policy could once again flare up. Last year, a dispute over charter funding helped push the budget well past its deadline. This year, Heastie said, he is not yet aware of any new charter-related bills heading into the new legislative session, which begins in January.

Meanwhile, he and the union are mulling changes they’d like to see to teacher evaluations.

In 2015, after fierce resistance by the unions, the state tied teacher ratings much more closely to state test scores. The move helped spark a statewide boycott of the tests, leading the Board of Regents to pass a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

However, the moratorium is set to sunset in 2019, which will likely eventually force lawmakers to change the law. Heastie did not say that he will push for a repeal this year, but did say it is time to “start the dialogue” about how to improve evaluations.

“I don’t know if we can get to a final idea,” he said. “But I think the earliest we could give schools and school districts around the state [notice] that there will be a different way to look at our student progress, I think the better.”