pony up

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

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who took office in 2016, has been a proponent of pre-K investments and even spoke in favor of universal pre-K on the campaign trail.

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.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.