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.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

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.