Funding gap

Tennessee doesn’t pay for enough teachers to meet its class size mandates, says state report

PHOTO: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

The state is considerably underestimating the number of educators needed to run Tennessee schools according to its own requirements, says a state comptroller’s report released Wednesday.

And local governments are paying the difference. Statewide, districts employ about 12,700 more educators than the state funds, according to the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability, or OREA.

The report analyzed the cost of staffing the state’s schools and found that almost all of Tennessee’s 146 districts had to hire more educators than were provided under the state’s funding formula, called the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

Tennessee’s largest school system in Memphis was an exception. Shelby County Schools has been losing enrollment annually and is one of only three districts to stick to the number of state-funded teachers. However, the cash-strapped district dips into local funding to pay its teachers the highest average weighted salary in the state, $54,187.

OREA reports that many districts were especially shorted when it comes to receiving state money to pay for assistant principals, considered school workhorses who oversee everything from discipline to attendance to transportation. The BEP provides money for only a third of the state’s assistant principals, and 22 districts don’t get state money for a single assistant principal.

Still, the vast majority of educators in Tennessee are classroom teachers. The median percentage of additional teachers funded with local money was 22 percent. That translated to 686 more teachers in Knox County and 499 more in Rutherford County in 2014-15.

The reason for the gap? The BEP calculates the number of state-funded positions based on student enrollment for the district as a whole, but districts still have to meet state class size requirements within each school building — a maximum of 25 students for grades K-3, 30 for 4-6, and 35 for 7-12.

The report comes months after Tennessee codified revisions to the BEP, a hybrid of funding formulas crafted in 1992 and 2007. However, many critics say the formula is unfair and does not pay for the true cost of educating students. The state is fighting separate funding lawsuits from districts in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has been adamant that the formula is fair, even while acknowledging that the state doesn’t fully fund its own formula.

This spring, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to increase K-12 education spending by $223 million, with a large portion going to increase teacher pay. Districts have received about $194 million of the allocation; state officials say the remaining $29 million will be spent on teachers’ insurance.

The amount that teachers have felt in their paychecks has varied. In Memphis, Shelby County Schools’ has budgeted for a 3 percent raise for top teachers, which is to begin showing up in paychecks this month.

You can find the full OREA report here.

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.