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.

Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.

Fund Students First

Memphis locals rally for extra school funding, demanding it be spent on student needs

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
About 40 education advocates met before today's commission meeting to rally for more direct funding for student needs.

Lobbying for how Shelby County Schools should spend an extra $12.7 million just granted from the county’s surplus, a crowd of 40 parents, students, and education advocates lined the glass-paneled doors of the county commission office today and demanded the money be used to “fund students first.”

But after the commission voted to use the funds only for one-time expenses instead of recurring costs, it is unclear that the advocates’ demands will be met.

Among the crowd was Brenda Crawford, a former student at Georgian Hills Middle, where she said she’s had “firsthand experience with ripped textbooks, leaky roofs, permanent subs, lack of technology, and cut programs.”

Now a rising sophomore at Trezevant High School, Crawford joined Campaign for School Equity’s Student Advocacy Program to push for better college preparation.

“If we get more funding for health specialists and AP classes, then our academic growth can go higher and then kids can have a better learning experience,” she said.

Participating organizations included Stand for Children Tennessee, Campaign for School Equity, Tennessee Charter School Center, Shelby County Young Democrats, the Memphis Grassroots Organizing Coalition, Memphis Education Fund, Memphis LIFT, Catholic peace group Pax Christi, and grassroots organization Gray Panthers. Leaders in these groups know the power of collective action. The last time they stood together, the commission approved a $22 million boost for local schools.

“Partnership is obviously really important,” said Carl Schneider, community organizer for Stand for Children. “I think sometimes these education advocacy groups are seen as really disparate, and funding for our schools is something everyone can really rally behind.”

District leaders originally planned to use the funds for additional services such as behavioral specialists, workforce training, school resource officers, and school counselors.

“Our schools need every one of those things,” said Daniel Henley, a pastor at Journey Christian Church. “And I think this $12.7 million is just a start… Yes to behavioral specialists, yes to guidance counselors – we need them all.”

But some parents are wary that the money may not be spent responsibly, and they urged each other to hold school leaders accountable.

“I don’t want you to make more administrative positions, or make more offices,” said Mahalia Brown, whose son just graduated from Memphis Business Academy. “Make sure the money goes to the kids, to the teachers, to people who actually need it, not just administration.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis LIFT, said she wants the money to go to efforts that tackle adverse childhood experiences as well as special education and facilities fees for charter schools. Her biggest wish, though, was that the money not go to waste.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Commissioner Eddie Jones, a supporter of the extra funding, talks with Memphis LIFT parents before the meeting.

“If you got all that money before, and now you’re coming back asking for more money, you’re just throwing money at things and ain’t nothing happening,” she said. “You don’t give kids $100 to go to the mall and they come back with a pack of candy and all their money is gone.”

Commissioners Van Turner and Eddie Jones are both graduates of Memphis public schools. At the pre-meeting rally, they echoed support for additional funding – and for spending it wisely.

“Funding education and funding education properly are the greatest public safety platform or plan that we can have,” Turner said.

If the commission can come back with a plan to make a “smart dollar investment” in its local public schools, said state representative Raumesh Akbari, then political groups like the Shelby County Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators will have renewed momentum.

“You’ll give us the credibility when we go into this new administration in 2019 and we talk about sending some state dollars down to match those county dollars,” he said.