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.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.