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.


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.