Street talk

Memphis billboards urge city to start funding schools again

PHOTO: Stand for Children
A 2017 billboard campaign, paid for by Stand for Children, highlights an ongoing frustration among city, county and school leaders over education funding.

A week after Mayor Jim Strickland largely dismissed a new coalition’s call for a $10 million investment in education, the group is taking its message to Memphis billboards.

Fund Students First — comprised of elected officials, education advocates and public school leaders — posted two billboards Friday in high-trafficked streets in downtown and midtown Memphis. The campaign is being underwritten by Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group with offices in Memphis and Nashville.

One of the billboards reads:

The message plays off a controversial billboard campaign launched earlier this year by the local police union in an attempt to tie the city’s high murder rate to vacancies in the police department. Under Strickland’s proposed budget for next year, that department would receive a significant boost.

The other billboard says:

That message alludes to the mayor’s call for more job training for youth and young adults, even as the city has refused to set aside money that could be tapped by public schools.

The education campaign highlights frustration over years of tenuous funding for Memphis schools, but especially since the city school system voted to give up its charter in 2010 and merged with the suburban Shelby County Schools in 2013. County government is now the sole funding agent for consolidated Shelby County Schools, which last year prompted County Commissioner Terry Roland to refer to city government as a “deadbeat parent.”

Just before the consolidation, the city contributed $65 million annually to Memphis schools, which was about 5 percent of the district’s revenue. Next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools is $985 million.

This spring, education groups that often are at odds with each other formed the Fund Students First coalition, asking Strickland to put his money where his mouth is.

Elected in 2015, Strickland campaigned to make Memphis “brilliant at the basics” — a slogan that coalition members say should include public education.

“That should be a ‘basic’ of what we should have to do to move our city forward,” said Cardell Orrin, Stand for Children’s Memphis director.

Presenting his $680 million spending plan this week to City Council, Strickland mentioned youth first. He said his budget would restore Friday hours to libraries and expand teen programming, as well as maintain a summer job program for 1,400 students and add a literacy component for summer camps.

“First, and most importantly, the future of our city is only as strong as our young people,” Strickland said. “…Yet we know the No. 1 job of city government is to provide for public safety.”

The coalition has called for a direct city investment of at least $10 million 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.

PHOTO: Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland presents his proposed $680 million budget to City Council on April 25, 2017.

Strickland has said the city faces “serious and well-documented budget challenges” due to the gradual elimination of the state’s Hall income tax and required increases in the city’s pension fund. He added that Memphis taxpayers decided in a 2011 referendum that they did not want to be “double-taxed” by putting in money to education through both city and county coffers.

But Tomeka Hart, a former city schools board member and one of the architects of the merger, questioned Strickland’s framing.

“(Double-taxation) had nothing to do with the reason behind the merger,” she said. “They could fund the school system if they want to.”

Hart said the referendum was about protecting school funding from impending state legislation that would have allowed the county school system to wall off its funding in a “special school district,” similar to the current municipal school districts that ring the city. She said the double-taxation argument came up when City Council members wanted to cut school funding in 2008.

Strickland served on City Council at that time and was one of the original proponents of a $66 million cut to city funding for legacy Memphis City Schools. That cut sparked a lawsuit and a settlement that has the city still paying $1.3 million annually to Shelby County Schools. Last year, school and county officials chided the city government for paying nothing more.

The coalition has proposed that the city invest $10 million in a fund that would be managed by a nonprofit organization. That would prevent the city from being locked into giving that amount every year as mandated under a state law known as “maintenance of effort.”

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.