pony up

New coalition asks Memphis mayor to pump $10 million into education

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Mayor Jim Strickland is scheduled this month to present to City Council his proposed budget for Memphis.

Memphis education leaders with opposing views on how to fix the city’s schools can agree on one thing: The city needs to “get back in the business of funding public education.”

A diverse coalition of stakeholders is calling on Mayor Jim Strickland to include at least $10 million in the city’s upcoming budget to help pay for career and technical training for in-demand jobs, as well as after-school programs and social supports for potential dropouts. The group wants at least half of the money to be funneled through public schools and the rest through community programs.

In an April 13 letter, the group called children “our city’s greatest asset” and offered to meet with Strickland as his administration finalizes its spending plan for the next fiscal year.

“We’ve heard Mayor Strickland and members of the (City) Council state time and again that education is a major issue and top area of concern for the city. Yet, in the next sentence they will say that the city is out of the business of education,” said Cardell Orrin, Memphis director of Stand for Children, in a statement Monday.

The letter — signed by 14 organizations and 16 community leaders including state lawmakers, pastors and school board members — is the latest volley hurled at the city for providing the minimum required financial support to public education under the terms of a 2015 legal settlement. Last year, Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland compared city government to a “deadbeat parent” as the county struggled to help Shelby County Schools fill a $35 million budget gap.

But city spokeswoman Ursula Madden said the group is barking up the wrong tree. She said the city already funds many programs contributing to education as part of its “public safety strategy.”

“We may not be putting money in Shelby County Schools, but we’re looking for ways to increase quality programming,” Madden said. “We‘re not discounting any of their concerns. We share some of their concerns, quite frankly. But we’re doing our part.”

Responding later with his own letter to the coalition, Mayor Strickland said the city invests $50 million annually for parks and libraries that support children. As for more career training, he noted partnerships in the works with Southwest Tennessee Community College, Moore Tech and Tennessee College of Applied Technology.

“Also, taxpayers in Memphis do, in fact, finance Shelby County Schools through county taxes. And, a few years ago, the citizens of Memphis voted not to be ‘double taxed’ and to surrender the charter of the former Memphis City Schools,” Strickland wrote.


From our archive: Six things to know about Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland on education


Shelby County has been the local funding agent for Memphis-area public schools since the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with legacy Shelby County Schools. That happened after the city’s school board voted in 2010 to surrender its charter and the subsequent merger was approved in a countywide referendum.

The coalition’s letter points out that, while the city is no longer legally obligated to fund local schools, education directly impacts the city’s quality of life.

“We hope that you will think of our youth not under a crime plan, but under a youth success plan where supporting their educational achievement is paramount,” the letter said. “Our young people should be viewed not as part of a crime problem, but as the solution to the challenges of our city. Our commitment to education and youth success should be at least as much of a priority as increasing the police force.”

The group, called the Fund Students First Coalition, includes representatives both of Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which often have been at odds over school takeovers that siphoned off students and funding from the local district. The coalition also includes charter school advocates and a local teachers union.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

Chris Caldwell, who signed the letter as chairman of Shelby County’s Board of Education, noted that the vast majority of the district’s students are Memphis residents. “I would think that would give city leaders rationale for taking an interest in (providing) significant resources to achieve its goals,” he said.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari said she signed the letter because education should fall under the city’s public safety focus.

“With high crime, unemployment, and poverty rates persisting, funding for these strategic investments can increase academic achievement and graduation rates, and enhance postsecondary success for students,” said the Memphis Democrat.

The coalition’s $10 million ask is a relatively small amount compared to the $945 million proposed budget of Shelby County Schools. The coalition is asking that half of the money it’s requesting go to public schools operated by Shelby County Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and charter management organizations.

The coalition letter cites a recent Rutgers University study that said Shelby County Schools has “some of the most extreme fiscal conditions” among districts with higher-than-average poverty rates and lower-than-average revenues.

Strickland is scheduled to present his proposed budget to City Council on April 25.

Below is the coalition’s full letter, which outlines specific ways that the coalition is requesting the city to fund education efforts and the mayor’s full response:

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Mayor Strickland’s response in an April 21 letter to the coalition.

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 $400,000 price tag 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.