State's answer

Tennessee affirms its school funding formula in response to lawsuit over Memphis schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee State Capitol

In its first response to a funding lawsuit filed last year by Shelby County Schools, the state is denying that its funding model is the cause of financial struggles faced by Tennessee’s largest school district.

And while agreeing that the state is responsible for maintaining and supporting a public school system “that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students in Tennessee,” the state says its existing funding formula, known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, meets that requirement.

The 25-page response was filed last Friday afternoon in Davidson County Chancery Court, marking the next step in a legal process expected to take years.

The Shelby County lawsuit, filed last August by the district’s school board, charged that the state not only does not adequately fund school operations, but that the state does not fully fund its own formula. The formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the overwhelmingly impoverished student population in Memphis. The suit details how its funding level impacts student achievement and district operations including school closures, class sizes, student services such as guidance counselors and nurses, and even community engagement efforts.

In its response, the state affirmed its funding model at every front and cited the district’s flexibility to spend the money provided. The response does not include specific defenses of the state’s funding model, only saying it provides the money.

State officials named in the district’s funding lawsuit “deny that their actions ‘forced’ the District to eliminate any programs.”

“The District has considerable discretion in deciding how to allocate funds,” the response says. “… Education funding affects the educational opportunities that are available to students, but deny any conclusory opinions regarding the causal effect of money on educational outcomes.”

The state is now facing several school funding lawsuits. Last year, Chattanooga-based Hamilton County Schools spearheaded the first lawsuit with six surrounding rural districts. And last month, the school board for Metro Nashville Public Schools voted to sue the state too, after learning that the district will receive less state money than expected for its growing population of English language learners.

The lawsuits are the latest legal challenges to Tennesee’s system for funding public education. In 1988, 77 small school systems successfully sued the state, claiming its funding formula — known as the Tennessee Foundation Program — was inequitable. The ruling in 1993 by the Tennessee Supreme Court forced the state to change its funding formula, and subsequent legal challenges led to more revisions over the next decade.

Earlier this year, Shelby County Schools hired the Memphis-based law firm that won the 1993 ruling.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have expressed disappointment that districts are taking legal action. They point out that the Haslam administration has worked with the legislature to provide more than $730 million in new funding for K-12 education, including $220 million in new funding next school year — a record investment.

But while generally giving the governor high marks for his efforts, district and Shelby County government leaders have argued that the state’s funding mechanism is broken and that the state’s system has gradually shifted the cost of education to local governments.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools sold a temple and bottle plant recently, but the sale of Broad Ripple is more controversial

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Phillips Temple

When retired teacher Clara E. Holladay passed away in 1946, she left the school district where she taught a generous and unusual gift: Two duplex houses on the northside of Indianapolis.

Holladay’s will stipulated that the income should “assist good and worthy students, who would not, without assistance, be able to secure a high school or college education,” according to the Indianapolis Star.

Indianapolis Public Schools held on to the houses at 54th Street and North College Avenue for the next seven decades. Last year, the district sold them for $423,000. (The proceeds of the sale were invested, and the interest will continue to fund scholarships.) Between September 2015 and the end of 2018, district officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million, according to information provided by the administration.

Many sales, like Holladay’s duplexes, occur without much attention. But the district’s plan to sell the building that contained Broad Ripple High School, after closing the school this year, has drawn significant attention. And it has ignited a simmering controversy over whether the district should be forced to sell the property to a charter school, as state law currently requires, or be allowed to sell it to a developer.

But while Broad Ripple has historical and personal significance, it is one of at least four former school buildings the district has sought to sell in recent years. Over the last 50 years, enrollment in the district fell from nearly 109,000 students to 31,000. In an effort to raise money for the cash-strapped district and reduce its stockpile of underused buildings, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration has made a flurry of sales.

The money that the district raises by selling property is a short-term salve for its budget woes. But it has helped pay the bills at a time when Indianapolis Public Schools is consistently running a deficit. Next year the administration projects a deficit of about $45 million, and officials plan to ask voters to increase school funding in November.

Indianapolis Public Schools set off a real estate frenzy when it sold a former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass Ave. that will soon become a high-end development. The district has owned the striking art deco property since the late 1960s, using it to house a bus depot and other central services. More recently, it purchased a historic church — the Phillips Temple — in 2011, and the administration planned to demolish it to make room for a parking lot, according to the Indianapolis Star. Instead, it sold the historic property to a developer in 2015.

Here is a list of the properties the district has sold since 2015, according to the district

Property: Minnie Hartmann School 78

Buyer: John H. Boner Center

Closing Date: 9/7/2015

Sale Proceeds: $400,000

Property: Phillips Temple

Buyer: Van Rooy Properties

Closing Date: 9/17/2015

Sale Proceeds: $122,500

Property: CIRT

Buyer: Milhaus

Closing Date: 11/24/2015

Sale Proceeds: $1,100,000

Property: Florence Fay School 21

Buyer: TWG (Whitsett Group)

Closing Date: 2/26/2016

Sale Proceeds: $500,000

Property: Otis E. Brown School 20

Buyer: Tessera (Yeshua Society)

Closing Date: 7/20/2016

Sale Proceeds: $255,000

Property: College Avenue Doubles

Buyer: L. Stoeffer and Associates, Inc.

Closing Date: 12/21/2016

Sale Proceeds: $423,000

Property: SCIPS – Service Center IPS

Buyer: Bottleworks District, LLC

Closing Date: 9/1/2017

Sale Proceeds: $12,000,000

Property: Mallory/Ford

Buyer: Ford TWG, LLC

Closing Date: 11/3/2017

Sale Proceeds: $1,650,000

Property: Meridian Transition

Buyer: Families First

Closing Date: In Negotiations / July 2018

Sale Proceeds: $1,575,000

Property: FMD/Polk

Buyer: TWG Development, LLC

Closing Date: Pending Sale / December 2018

Sale Proceeds: $2,750,000

IPS referendum

Ferebee, pleading for more money for schools, says teacher raises, security upgrades are on the ballot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, thinks the schools need more funding to serve students from low-income families.

At a quiet meeting held Wednesday in a near northside church, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made his case: Indianapolis Public Schools needs more money from local taxpayers.

At stake when voters go to the polls in November: The ability of the state’s largest district to foot the cost of raises for teachers and school security improvements, among other expenditures officials deem necessary. There are two property tax hikes on the ballot this year to increase school funding.

Ferebee told the few dozen people who came to the meeting — parents, alumni, district staffers, among them — that, with adequate funding, he envisioned offering the best teacher pay in the state and attracting some of the most talented educators.

“I think every parent in this room would appreciate that,” he said. “We have to be competitive with teachers’ … compensation.”

The superintendent presented a broad outline of the district’s financial woes, but there was not much new information. He devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from those in attendance, who were alternately supportive and skeptical of the referendums.

Reggie Jones, a member of the Indianapolis NAACP education committee, said that while he supports the ballot initiatives, he also wants to know more about how the money will be spent.

Janise Hamiter, a district bus attendant, expressed concern that some of the money raised will be used to make improvements at buildings that are occupied by charter schools in the district innovation network.

“Private money is going to be used for charter schools. Public money is going to be used for charter schools,” she said. “They are getting both ends of the stick if you ask me.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided which way she’ll vote.

One of the proposed referendums would raise about $52 million to pay for improvements to school buildings, particularly safety features such as new lights, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. The board voted earlier this month to add that request to the ballot.

The second measure, which is likely to generate significantly more funds, would pay for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Details of that proposal are expected in the coming weeks. The board will hold a July 17 hearing on the measure.

The community meeting was notable because this is the district’s second time this year campaigning for more money from taxpayers, and the success of the referendums could hinge on whether Ferebee makes a strong case to voters. Last year, the district announced plans to seek nearly $1 billion in two referendums that were to be on the ballot in May. But community groups, notably the MIBOR Realtor Association, balked at the size of the request and criticized the district for not providing enough details.

Eventually, the school board chose to delay the vote and work with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly version. The latest proposal for building improvements comes in at about one-quarter of the district’s initial request.

Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School but no longer lives in the district, said he supports increasing school funding because he’s familiar with the needs of Indianapolis schools. When so many students come from low-income families, Harris said, “more resources are required.”