Budget unveiled

Hopson wants to invest in Memphis teacher raises, student supports, struggling schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson joined school board members and teachers last August to celebrate a new school supplies depot for teachers in Shelby County Schools. On Monday, Hopson unveiled a 2017-18 budget that proposes more investments in teachers and schools.

Memphis school teachers could get a 3 percent raise for a second straight year under a proposed spending plan touted as “investing more in people than in programs.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Monday unveiled a $945 million spending plan for next school year that avoids the layoffs and cuts that have dominated recent budgets for Shelby County Schools.

Instead, Tennessee’s largest district plans to invest in new resources to support its classrooms by adding 18 instructional coaches, 35 school counselors, 11 assistant principals, and 20 interventionists for literacy and math. Each teacher would get $50 more each year to buy classroom supplies, on top of the $100 they already receive.

The district also is earmarking $5.9 million to pay for interventions at 11 struggling schools and to provide retention bonuses for their teachers.

It’s all part of nearly $50 million in academic additions proposed for next school year — a flip from last year when the district made $50 million in cuts. To help cover the investments, $18 million would come from the district’s general fund balance, which now stands at $110 million.

The proposed budget for 2017-18 is 2 percent lower than this year’s, due partly to another year of declining enrollment. But it’s the first year since the 2013 merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools that the district has kicked off its budget season without a shortfall.

Despite the anticipated drop in students, no teacher layoffs are planned. Instead, excess teachers will be moved to fill vacancies elsewhere. “We’ll have a place for all of our teachers,” Hopson said during a conference call with news reporters.

The budget was presented to school board members with messages about both good news and bad.

The good news: Shelby County Schools will continue to benefit from the boost in local education funding approved last year by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which holds the purse strings for school funding.

The bad news, Hopson said, is that the district is still “woefully underfunding by the state,” a claim supported by a recent Rutgers study and the basis for the district’s ongoing funding lawsuit against the state.

Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson also warned that the district’s newfound stability could be rocked if the state legislature passes a tuition voucher law. One bill specifically aimed at Memphis could cost Shelby County Schools about $18 million annually.

“It is a significant amount that jeopardizes us doing more in terms of academic intervention, academic improvement, and improving more emotional and social support for our kids,” Johnson told board members.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, is built on the assumption that vouchers will be approved and that 1,000 students would take advantage of them at a cost of $8.6 million. If the bill fails, Hopson said board members could redirect that money to more school supports.

Proposals to invest in supports that reach classrooms drew praise from school board members. Stephanie Love cited increased staffing to support students’ social and emotional needs, while board Chairman Chris Caldwell welcomed the chance to invest proactively.

Meanwhile, former chairwoman Teresa Jones urged district administrators to be transparent about exactly where the investments will go.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Jones said. “I realize we have a lot of ground to make up. And it’s the first year since I’ve been on the board we’ve been able to try to make investments — real investments — district-wide. I’m pleased for that.”

Exactly how the $10.5 million in teacher raises would be rolled out is still under discussion. The district is in negotiations with the county’s two teachers unions. Last year, Hopson pushed for merit-based raises, but eventually extended them across the board after technical and logistical problems with the state’s new TNReady test delayed teacher evaluation data to the district.

The budget aligns with Hopson’s initiative announced last month to work with principals to transform 11 schools struggling with academic, enrollment or building maintenance problems. The effort pulls components from the Innovation Zone, the district’s school turnaround program, to help improve schools in crisis.

“What we hear year in and year out is we need help in schools,” Hopson said. “We were really thoughtful about coming up with a budget that shows significant and sustainable investments in schools.”

Below is the administration’s budget presentation to school board members.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”