School funding

Haslam proposes 5 percent boost for K-12 education in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his 2017 State of the State address at the state Capitol in Nashville.

Free community college for all adults, not just graduating high school seniors, took top billing Monday night in Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address to lawmakers.

But K-12 education was also a focus, with a proposal to significantly increase spending for K-12 education for a third straight year. The 5 percent boost would go mainly to teacher pay, career technical education, English language learners, and charter schools.

Haslam speaks to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

In conjunction his seventh State of the State address, Haslam released a $37 billion proposed budget for 2017-18, including almost $230 million more for schools following a historic increase last year. Haslam said it’s one of the largest education funding increases in the state’s history and amounts to fully funding schools under the state’s funding formula known as the Basic Education Program.

“Last year we had the largest funding increase for public education without a tax increase in the history of the state. This year we’re proposing one of the largest funding increases in Tennessee history while at the same time cutting $270 million in taxes. … Tennessee has shown it will not balance the budget on the backs of teachers and students,” said Haslam, noting that  education spending has increased $1.3 billion under his administration.

Still, the proposed hike doesn’t cover all of the needs identified in a 2016 state report around counselors, technology, and instructional staff. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, Tennessee was 43rd in the nation for per-pupil spending.

Haslam has said he wants Tennessee to become the nation’s fastest-improving state on teacher pay and, as with the last two years, his single biggest proposed increase is for teacher compensation. The governor is asking for an extra $100 million there — equating to a 4 percent increase — on the tails of $200 million in similar increases since 2015. But if the legislature approves the spending plan, it won’t guarantee that teachers will see that boost in their paychecks. Ultimately, school districts have flexibility on how they spend that money.

The governor proposed $22 million more for the state’s growing school population of English language learners. And in keeping with a new focus on high school education, career technical education would get a one-time boost of $15 million. He also earmarked $4.5 million more for the state’s literacy initiative known as Read to Be Ready, as requested by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

His budget singles out the state’s 100-plus charter schools with a one-time $6 million bump to help pay for facilities, now a sore point for the state’s growing charter sector. Buildings, utilities and repairs take up a significant portion of charters’ budgets. And though it’s only a small part of Haslam’s spending plan, the line item signals his administration’s commitment to charter schools as a mechanism to improve public schools through competition.

The free community college proposal, known as Tennessee Reconnect, drew enthusiastic applause from state legislators. If approved, Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to offer all citizens — both high school students and adults — the chance to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate free of tuition and fees.

“Just as we did with Tennessee Promise, we’re making a clear statement to families: wherever you might fall on life’s path, education beyond high school is critical to the Tennessee we can be,” Haslam said.

CORRECTION, Jan. 31, 2017: An earlier version incorrectly referred to a $183 million increase in school spending. The actual increase is $230 million. The $183 million figure refers to increases under the state’s school funding formula, the Basic Education Plan.

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety:



school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.