new chapter

For the first time in years, Shelby County Schools will start its budget process without a shortfall

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students at Snowden School in Memphis.

When it comes to providing enough money to keep Shelby County Schools afloat, board member Stephanie Love likens Tennessee’s largest school system to a ship that has been navigating life-threatening storms.

The beleaguered district has been battered by wave after wave of budgetary challenges: the massive merger of city and county schools in 2013; six municipalities pulling out to start their own school systems in 2014; yearly takeovers of Memphis schools by the state-run turnaround district; and annual closings of aging school buildings that have too many needs and too few students.

But this year, the wind-whipped ship appears to be sailing into calmer waters.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

“This will be one of the best budget years since the merger and demerger …,” Love said. “This year we are able to sit down and strategize.”

Indeed, when administrators roll out their proposed spending plan on Monday, the district will start the budget process in the black for the first time in years.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the budget proposal will contain “unprecedented investments” for schools.

“After experiencing the largest school merger in history, we have stabilized our district and can shift our focus toward strategic investments in our schools,” Hopson said in a statement Friday. “Although we still believe that we are underfunded at the state level, we have worked diligently to maximize our limited resources.”

How Hopson and the school board will leverage the district’s newfound stability will be decided in the coming weeks as they target a budget vote for March 28.

The timeline for the process has been stepped up this year under Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson, now starting his second budget season with Shelby County Schools. He and Hopson hope to present an approved budget in April to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which holds the purse strings for local public schools.

Teacher training, supports for failing schools, and adding school counselors and behavior specialists are among items on wish lists for leaders who are weary of storms and ready to make proactive investments.

The shift in thinking is a welcome change from last year, when Hopson kicked off the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall on the tails of $125 million in cuts the previous year.

After cutting positions, winning at $22 million funding boost from the county commission and dipping into reserves, the district crafted a $959 million budget for the current fiscal year, including a 3 percent raise for teachers. The ante up from from the county was a crucial win for local schools because the increase set a higher baseline for funding levels for years to come.

But lest anyone gets too giddy about this year’s prospects, board Chairman Chris Caldwell is quick to remind that the district still remains woefully underfunded.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Board member Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson listen to a budget presentation in 2015.

“We may have a healthy fund balance, but in the bigger picture we don’t have healthy funding,” referring to the district’s funding lawsuit against the state. The suit, which is winding its way through the courts, charges the state with shortchanging Shelby County Schools by upwards of $100 million every year.

Still, the relative financial stability should open a fresh new conversation with county leaders about how Hopson and his team are doing to right the bloated district. Each year, county commissioners have asked Hopson to constrict its footprint. Last fall, the superintendent responded by unveiling a proposal to close, build and consolidate five schools into three.

Steve Basar, who chairs the commission’s finance committee, says it’s time to take the long view.

“This is your third year (since the de-merger) and you’ve had a lot of turnover in the staff. It’s realistic that you weren’t able to plan because the landscape has been changing so much,” said Basar. “Now we need to look what’s the footprint going to look like for the next 50 years.”

That likely means more school closures on the horizon. But the process has slowed dramatically under a strategic plan unveiled last month by Hopson to determine which struggling schools to invest in based on enrollment, academic performance and maintenance costs. Interventions will take cues from the district’s Innovation Zone, the district’s expensive turnaround model, with the expectation of steady academic improvement.

“This is the process the board was hoping for,” Caldwell said. “Sometimes decisions were made looking retroactively, but this is a move on the front end.”

Love said Hopson’s plan reflects more optimism about finances.

“Being that we don’t have a deficit, we’re able to do the superintendent’s summer academy,” she said, referring to this summer’s intervention program for 5,000 students). “We’re about to put more money into schools that haven’t received support from the Achievement School District or the iZone.”

This school year also marks the depletion of a historic $90 million grant from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that changed the way the district evaluates and trains teachers. District spokeswoman Natalia Powers says the upcoming budget will need to bolster professional development so the district can house its own teacher training rather than contracting that service out.

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: