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.

Old buildings

Community members have plenty to say about CPS’ 10-year facilities master plan

PHOTO: Public Building Commission of Chicago
Frederic Chopin Elementary School in Humboldt Park is one of the few Chicago schools scheduled for building improvements as part of the school district's latest capital plan.

Carolina Gaete had a question. The North Lawndale resident wanted to know how Chicago Public Schools decides which improvements to fund at the hundreds of district campuses across the city. “How is it determined which schools are prioritized?” asked Gaete, co-director of community group Blocks Together and the mother of a CPS graduate. “Do you have a system—and what’s the process?”

Gaete’s question to the district—more on the answer later—was posed Monday during a community meeting in West Humboldt Park with CPS officials. Chicago schools that suffer from faulty boilers, leaky roofs, and crumbling masonry have little recourse given that CPS’ $189 million capital budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 only addresses 6 percent of the estimated $3.4 billion need. 

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
The community meeting was held on June 11 in the Nia Family Center.

Between now and June 28, CPS is sending staff to community meetings to gather feedback for the latest draft of its Educational Facilities Master Plan. The 10-year plan, born out of a 2011 state law aimed at increasing transparency around the district’s investments in school buildings, is updated periodically. The law requires community input.

All of the meetings are open to the public. Most are hosted by parent advisory councils and community action councils. Here’s the list of meetings.

At the West Humboldt Park event, a handful of public school officials filed into the Nia Family Center and settled along the back wall of a conference room. Gaete and other members of the West Humboldt Community Action Council listened as Dispensa covered some basics: how the city prioritizes building investments across 16 planning zones, factoring for facility deficiencies as well as population and enrollment trends, and how the district calculates building utilization rates, which have been used to justify school closings.  

Gaete, like several councilmembers, is part of Blocks Together, a community group that helped craft the 2011 state law that sought to reform the facility planning process at CPS. Unsurprisingly, they were among the most vocal when Dispensa concluded his presentation and opened the floor to questions and comments. Gaete was ready: “How is it determined which schools are prioritized—what’s the process?”

In response, Dispensa explained that CPS prioritizes individual building needs starting with roofs and masonry, then it ranks next all needs related to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, and interior finishes and program spaces. Areas outside schools such as playgrounds and parking lots rank last.

“There is a process,” Dispensa continued.  “It begins with having proper facility assessments from expert architects who go and visit every school and tell them what the priorities are.”

Gaete followed up: “How often are those assessments done?”

One of the district planners seated behind Gaete said every two years—but that the assessments had been suspended since 2015 due to budget constraints. Most of the building condition information in the draft facilities plan is outdated.

The district’s capital budget for the upcoming fiscal year identifies improvements for only 23 of CPS’ 526 campuses across the city. About 80 percent of the budget is earmarked for the first priority tier: exterior renovations to roofs, windows and masonry. Dispensa said the district could use more state funding to better address its capital needs.

But the meeting on Monday was about more than money and building assessments:

  • West Humboldt Community Action Council member and CPS parent Cecile Carroll, 34, said during the meeting that the plan doesn’t articulate where the district is going to place charter schools or how much money it spends on charter facilities. “We can’t do our job and plan better for our schools when we have a whole other piece to the puzzle we’re not able to see,” said Carroll, Gaete’s co-director at Blocks Together and a member of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which the Illinois General Assembly established in 2009 to examine decisions made by CPS.
  • Council members also questioned Dispensa about the district’s utilization formula—that is, the equation the district uses to determine whether a school is “underutilized,” “efficient,” or “overcrowded.” They suggested that CPS strongly consider alternatives to closing schools where the population of students has dwindled. They gave such ideas as sharing extra space with community based social service agencies, adjusting attendance boundaries, or investing in school improvements to boost academic achievement.
  • Several people asked the district to bolster its outreach efforts around the facilities plan, contending that not every community is represented by the groups on the current tour. They complained that the slate of June facility meetings only includes one with a Local School Council.

While Dispensa said CPS aims to work with certain groups, he pointed out these are open meetings. “I think that we can all agree the district hasn’t done as great a job with [community feedback] as we know we can,” he said. “And so we’re taking this opportunity to work with (community groups) to get a better sense of what that engagement looks like.”

School Finance

Here’s what led to Indiana’s heated debate about sending federal dollars to struggling schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana education officials are cautiously moving forward with a plan to send millions of extra dollars to the state’s most struggling schools next year — but how much, and to which schools, caused a contentious debate.

The Indiana State Board of Education is planning to direct more than $6.1 million in federal school improvement funds to schools where the state has intervened because of poor academic performance. Called turnaround academies, they include schools in state takeover as well as those with state-approved partnerships with charter school operators and other intensive supports. The funding, though, is a 6 percent decrease — or nearly $400,000 less — than what was allocated last year.

There are still questions about whether the plan, created by state board staff members, will pass muster under a new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, which classifies schools eligible for school improvement funding differently than Indiana has in the past.

Until federal officials sign-off on the funding plan, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, the Indiana Department of Education, which is tasked with handling federal Title I funding, won’t be doling out the extra funds to struggling schools just yet.

“That’s the big unknown right now,” said McCormick, the lone state board member who voted against the plan. “We will submit everything to the feds. As far as the recommendations that came out, until I have it in writing from the feds, we’re on pause … You don’t want the department of education at the state level to willy-nilly distribute federal funds.”

The board’s decision to follow its staff’s recommendations regarding the funding, rather than the education department’s, followed heated arguments between state board staff members and department officials. The two groups couldn’t agree on how much funding the turnaround schools should get — or if some of the schools were eligible to get any extra money at all.

The department said that under the federal ESSA law, schools can only receive the turnaround funds if they are in the lowest 5 percent of all Title I schools, receive an F letter grade from the state or a have a graduation rate of 67 percent or less. Indiana, though, considered Title I schools with F grades and any schools under state intervention to be eligible. It isn’t clear if the federal education department will allow three schools that meet Indiana’s threshold but not ESSA’s to continue receiving the funds.

“I think there are legal questions to still be answered,” said Nathan Williamson, director of Title grants and support for the state.

Also complicating matters, the state received less money from the federal government to give out for school improvement efforts overall — $17.4 million instead of $18.5 million. Plus, more schools are likely to qualify for those grants this year, primarily due to the new way the federal government is requiring the state to classify low-performing schools coupled with a dip in graduation rate. The state will have a final number in October, but department officials said it was probably going to be about 100 more schools, in addition to around 200 last year.

Because of the funding crunch, education department officials wanted to reduce the money sent just to schools under state intervention to $4 million instead of $6.1 million. That way, they said, there would be more leftover so that other low-rated schools that need help — but don’t qualify for state intervention — can apply for potential funds.

“All of them need at least some support,” said Williamson. “Otherwise, we’ll get them some support (when it’s too late), and it’ll be four years later and students, in the meantime, are the ones who suffer.”

But state board staff members argued that Indiana made a commitment to the schools under state intervention, and keeping their funding more consistent with what it has been in the past is the board’s responsibility.

“These are schools that we’re responsible for,” said board member Tony Walker, who represents Northwest Indiana. “How do we deliver a better school back to the district when we’re taking $1 million out from the people running the schools?”

The biggest discrepancy in funding proposals was for Charter Schools USA, the charter company that stepped in to manage three Indianapolis Public Schools when they were taken over by the state in 2011. The state board, which hired CSUSA, suggested maintaining the funding at close to the same rate. But the department of education suggested slashing CSUSA’s funding by $1.8 million for the three schools, in order to direct funds to other struggling schools.

McCormick said the department’s suggestions were based primarily on the number of schools that operators were in charge of. CSUSA, for example, is responsible for three schools. Indianapolis Public Schools, in charge of seven, would have gotten $1.4 million under the department’s plan. (The state board plan has them at $1.2 million.)

State board staff said their recommendations were more aligned with what the turnaround schools had budgeted themselves.