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 Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.

On school finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.