budget timeline

Stepped-up budget calendar for Memphis schools gets praise from Hopson, school board

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson, chief of finance

After several years of tall deficits and short timelines, Shelby County Schools plans to extend its budget process, starting earlier in the year and allowing more time for input and advocacy from board members and community stakeholders.

Since the district consolidated in 2013, budget season has been rushed at best and haphazard at worst as Tennessee’s largest school system wrestled with declining enrollment and annual deficits in the tens of millions of dollars. The process generally kicked in early in the spring, necessitating a multitude of quick decisions about painful cuts before the start of the district’s fiscal year on July 1.

But the timeline would change under the budget calendar proposed by Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson, hired last fall and now with his first budget season with Shelby County Schools under his belt.

The school board, which is expected to approve the stepped-up calendar Tuesday night, would receive a copy of the draft budget in January, more than two months earlier than the timeline used for the current fiscal year. To prepare those numbers, workshops could start as early as this November for teachers, parents, students and community members to weigh in on the district’s spending priorities.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members last week that the calendar is the most detailed he’s seen in eight years of working for the district.

Shelby County school board member Chris Caldwell (left) listens during a recent board meeting.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County school board member Chris Caldwell listens during a board meeting.

School Board Chairman Chris Caldwell, who heads the board’s budget committee, agreed. “It’s an attempt to be more methodical about the entire process and I think that’s a good thing,” he told Chalkbeat on Monday. “I would hope that would lead to a more informed budget process.”

By the end of October, district leadership expects to have budget projections based on student enrollment. Getting an early start on projections and community engagement could be crucial to Shelby County Schools gaining enough support for additional funding from local and state sources.

Under the proposed timeline, the school board would approve a final budget by late March and deliver it in April to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local governing body that authorizes funding for education.

During the most recent budget season, the school board approved its final budget in late June on the eve of the new fiscal year after weeks of wrangling with county commissioners and an eleventh-hour win in receiving additional local funding.

Follow the money

Audit: NYC issued $2.7 billion in noncompetitive education contracts — and often violates its own rules

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology in July.

The city’s education department routinely violated state law and its own policies in issuing contracts worth billions of dollars — mostly awarded without a competitive bidding process.

That’s according to a blistering audit released Friday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the first major audit to scrutinize contracting by the de Blasio education department. It found that the department issued $2.7 billion contracts without a competitive process in fiscal year 2016, or roughly 64 percent of all spending on contracts.

The education department routinely failed to properly oversee its vendors, paid them late, and often directed them to begin work before proper paperwork was filed with the comptroller’s office, according to the audit.

“This investigation shows that DOE acts as though the rules don’t matter,” Stringer said in a statement which included 20 recommendations to fix the process. “When it comes to contracting, this is an opaque agency that refuses to accept responsibility, that often uses inaccurate arguments to defend backwards organizational practices.”

Some highlights:

  • Out of 521 “limited competition” contracts, the city directed vendors to begin work before filing appropriate paperwork on 85 percent of them. In one case, a contract was filed two and a half years after the vendor began work.
  • The education department did not correct sloppy oversight of vendors, despite a 2015 audit that urged them to do so. In some cases, “there was no evidence the DOE conducted performance evaluations, as required by the DOE’s own procurement rules,” the audit found.
  • The DOE spent $2 million to pay for “goods or services that had already been improperly purchased in violation of DOE’s procurement rules.”

Stringer’s findings come less than a month after the comptroller blasted the city’s management of education technology in a separate audit that found the education department has lost track of thousands of computers and failed to create an appropriate tracking system for them. Stringer’s harsh criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department come shortly after endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.

The Bloomberg administration also faced sharp criticism for awarding contracts without soliciting competing bids. The administration’s critics said the mayor was inappropriately applying business practices to public spending. But Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, dismissed the criticism, saying he’d “never seen [an audit] that didn’t say you couldn’t follow procurement rules a little closer.”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said the city’s procurement process is “rigorous” and “many of this audit’s conclusions are incorrect.”

“We perform background checks on all vendors and post them online, maintain the appropriate documentation on procurements, and recently implemented an electronic performance evaluation system,” Mantell added.

legal action

Lawsuit over poor conditions in Detroit schools gets its first day in court, as state officials seek to end it

PHOTO: Public Counsel
Attorneys behind a new federal civil rights lawsuit meet with Osborn High School college advisor Andrea Jackson and student Jamarria Hall.

A lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court Thursday, but it could be a month before a judge rules whether it can proceed.

The suit, filed in September on behalf of seven Detroit students, argues that Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials have deprived city students of their right to literacy by not spending adequately on local schools.

The 136-page complaint paints a bleak picture of life in the city’s schools, describing condoms strewn on playgrounds, bathrooms leaking sewage into hallways, students left to grieve without support, and classrooms without qualified teachers. The suit claims that these conditions make learning difficult in Detroit schools — a conclusion that a recent study bears out.

Snyder petitioned in November to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the condition of Detroit’s schools isn’t the state’s fault. The hearing today focused largely on that question, and the judge in the case, Stephen Murphy, said he would rule within 30 days on whether to let the case move forward.

State-appointed emergency managers ran Detroit’s schools directly for six years, until one year ago, and union leaders issued a statement Thursday laying the blame for local schools’ struggles solidly on state officials.

“The state created these poor learning conditions, and now Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette are further abdicating their responsibility to the children of Detroit by moving to dismiss this case,” said the leaders of the Detroit, Michigan, and national chapters of the American Federation of Teachers. “All these children and families are asking for is what we owe all families — great, well-resourced public schools where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and children are engaged.”

If the case does move forward, it could take years to resolve. School funding equity cases —  currently pending in more than a dozen states, including Tennessee and New Mexico, where arguments ended earlier this month — typically take years to wend their way through the courts.

Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti, the first superintendent hired by the new locally elected school board, told Chalkbeat that Michigan does need to spend education dollars differently.

“I don’t think the state has recognized that simply providing equal funding or near-equal funding for all children in the state of Michigan on a per pupil basis does not go deep enough and broad enough to address the issues and challenges that children in Detroit face,” he said. “There is a need for a deeper weighted formula that recognizes [special education] status, [English Language Learner] status and poverty. That would give educators in Detroit more confidence that the state is supporting the children of Detroit differently than those throughout the state.”

But he said he found the lawsuit’s core allegation, that the state had deprived city students of a right to literacy, more complicated. “It’s not the state’s responsibility in and of itself,” Vitti said. “The school district, community partners, teachers, the faith-based community, the business community — everyone has to put shoulder to the wheel when talking about literacy.”