Balanced budget

Budget is set, finally, for Memphis schools; now the spending begins

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

On the eve of its new fiscal year, leaders for Shelby County Schools ironed out the final details of the district’s $959 million budget, preparing to give most of its teachers a 3 percent raise and restoring funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The school board approved its operations budget for 2016-17 on Thursday after pulling $3.5 million from its reserve fund to help balance its spending plan for academic and staffing needs.

The remaining difference came from from lowering anticipated unemployment benefits, increasing anticipated sales tax revenue, and closing two more high schools — Carver and Northside — approved by the school board in recent weeks.

That covers the last of a shortfall that at one time stood at $86 million and has been whittled down over five months, culminating on Wednesday when Shelby County commissioners agreed to increase funding to the district by $22 million.

The $959 million budget is $30 million less than the district spent this year, but Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the final tally avoids the worst cuts initially proposed.

With the County Commission’s vote this week to significantly increase funding for local schools, the district restored funding for 12 guidance counselors, reading and math specialists, and additional staff to absorb students from the closed schools. Also off the chopping block now is Hope Academy, a program for students in juvenile detention that represented one of the least expensive yet high-impact cuts proposed by Hopson’s administration. The program educates about 900 students per year for about $625,000.

As the new fiscal year begins on Friday, Hopson said the biggest investments will go to literacy, technology and small-scale replications of program successes achieved through the Innovation Zone, the district’s turnaround program for low-performing schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’re looking to extract things we’ve done well and see if we can scale some of those things,” he said.

One of those initiatives is the Empowerment Zone, anchored by Whitehaven High School and seasoned principal Vincent Hunter. Several of the schools in Whitehaven’s feeder pattern are in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide and on the cusp of being eligible for state intervention. The effort will include some teacher signing bonuses and more sharing of best practices among the schools.

With the state-run Achievement School District taking a hiatus from adding schools to its turnaround initiative, Hopson said the relative stability in enrollment will reduce the likelihood of another large budget deficit next year.

Top teachers will enjoy a long-sought 3 percent raise through a $13 million investment, even while union leaders lament the performance scale that the increase is based on.

In the upcoming year, the district also will pilot a new funding model to present for next year’s budget known as “student-based budgeting.” The approach is designed to provide more equitable funding across the district, which is Tennessee’s largest and poorest.

Student-based budgeting shifts from allocating money to schools based on a flat per-student rate toward building budgets that allocate more to students with higher needs. It also gives principals more autonomy on how to spend the money.

Also on the horizon, the district will take a hard look at how to get the right number of facilities for its students in the face of declining enrollment. Hopson repeatedly has said the district has 27,000 more seats than students to fill them, which will lead to more school closures in the coming years. A facilities study is expected in September.

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.