Facility focus

Financial stability for Memphis schools elusive amid under-utilized facilities

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners has begun reviewing the 2016-17 budget for Shelby County Schools.

This year’s budget season for Tennessee’s largest school district has returned to a predictable cycle: shrinking enrollment, declining revenue, a funding gap and school closures.

To break the cycle, Shelby County Schools must come to grips with its under-utilized buildings and falling enrollment and address the widening crevice head-on, say many policymakers and long-time observers.

Currently, about a dozen of Memphis schools operate at under 50 percent capacity. It’s not clear how much money the district loses each year due to under-utilized buildings, but what is certain is that each dollar lost prevents critical investments in a district that’s just beginning to turn the trajectory on low test scores.

The inefficiency is likely to be pointed out again on Wednesday when district leaders ask the Shelby County Commission for an additional $35 million to cover their $954 million spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Commissioners, who hold the district’s purse strings for local funding, noted the facility issue last year when district leaders asked for an additional $14 million — and the district received about half of their request.

This year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has made efforts to reduce the district’s facility footprint by recommending the closures of eight schools and an adult center at the end of the school year. But currently, only the adult center closure is definite. The school board ultimately voted to delay one school closure for a year, and another school’s fate hangs in the balance. Operators of three charter schools approved for closure are scheduled to learn from the State Board of Education on Friday whether their appeals have been granted.

Even if all were shuttered, the effect would only begin to scratch the surface of the facility excess created across decades by an enrollment drain begun under several economic recessions and exacerbated by the creation of the state-run Achievement School District and six suburban municipal districts, which continue to siphon off students from Shelby County Schools.

This year, commissioners disagree on how much facilities should play into addressing the district’s current budget shortfall.

Commissioner David Reaves, a former school board member who heads the panel’s education committee, says more revenue isn’t the solution.

“It’s about a district willing to reinvent itself,” he said in reference to right-sizing the district’s use of facilities in face of shrinking enrollment. “A lot of their extra money is tied up in that.”

Eddie Jones
PHOTO: Shelby County
Eddie Jones

But Commissioners Eddie Jones and Melvin Burgess want to look closer at the county’s wheel tax, which currently allocates $32 million to schools — half to operations and half to capital improvements. They want to redirect the full amount to operations. And with property tax revenues slightly ahead of projections, Jones believes the money will be there to fund the gap without raising taxes.

“The dollar follows the kids, not the buildings,” Jones said Tuesday. Closing under-utilized buildings “would free up more money for the classroom, but it will not determine how much less money we’ll give them. That’s just a talking point.”

To cover last year’s budget gap, school leaders dipped into the district’s reserve fund. This year, Hopson said that approach is unsustainable.

“He’s right; it’s not sustainable,” Reaves agreed. “The reason that’s not sustainable is because their footprint is too big.”

School board member Kevin Woods said the board continues to make a good-faith effort.

“The district has been closing schools for a very long time,” Woods said. “I think the County Commission can look at the district school board record on making tough decisions. Once they look at our record on decisions to right-size the district, it will be crystal clear ….”

Burgess, who is also a quality control manager for Shelby County Schools, said more work must be done, but the focus should be on making more school improvements and boosting enrollment. Underfunding the district would only create more problems, he said.

“We’ve got to find a way to make our schools good again so we’re not losing kids,” said Burgess, who favors increasing the wheel tax by $1 to help fund schools.

That approach may help this year, but the challenges are systemic, according to Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College who has chronicled the history of Memphis schools.

“You don’t build infrastructure for 110,000 (students) and overnight adjust it to 95,000. For a school system, that has got to be a logistical nightmare,” he said. “Give them a guaranteed five-year population, and maybe you can work with that. It’s amazing they’re even able to stay afloat.”

Hopson’s administration is expected to release a facilities study later this year to provide a more comprehensive review. In the meantime, the district still needs funding support to make more academic gains, Pohlmann said.

“The reality is, the system needs a whole lot more than what they have. Not less,” Pohlmann said.

"The dollar follows the kids, not the buildings."Eddie Jones, county commissioner

If the County Commission votes to provide an additional $35 million to Shelby County Schools as requested, it would have to increase funding for the county’s municipal districts too by about $10 million. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposed budget includes only an $8.7 million increase to all seven of the county’s school districts, of which Shelby County Schools would receive about 78 percent.

And Shelby County Schools isn’t the only group asking for additional funding. “All we’ve got in government is competing needs and we’ve got to prioritize,” said Commissioner Heidi Shafer during a recent budget hearing with other county departments.

Burgess maintains that education has got to be one of those priorities. However, school leaders have to prioritize as well, he said, and demonstrate good stewardship of their resources.

“Either you invest on the front end or spend on the back end,” he said, referring to the costs of educating kids for college and careers to the costs of unemployment and criminal justice. “If they need $50 million, give it to them. But we’ve got to hold them accountable. You’ve got to have a plan.”


Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include comments from County Commissioner Eddie Jones.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

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.

More than 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. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

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. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

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 boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

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.