It's not just the classroom

Disparities persist in how Memphis schools contract with businesses, study shows

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

Although black-owned businesses make up more than a third of the local construction industry, they were awarded less than 1 percent of Memphis school contracts in the last five years, according to a new study.

That’s the most egregious finding from a consulting group commissioned by the school board last year to measure disparities in how Shelby County Schools does business — particularly with companies owned by white women and people of color.

The study, presented Tuesday to school board members, recommends that the district create an outreach program to try to close that gap. If the board adopts the findings next week as expected, such an initiative could be the next step.

The study highlights an equity issue in a district that’s focused more typically on eliminating inequities in the education of children. But as Tennessee’s largest school system, Memphis’ fifth largest employer, and the overseer of a $1 billion budget, Shelby County Schools has an obligation to manage its business dealings in an equitable fashion, too, said Shante Avant, chairwoman of the school board.

“Wherever there are inequities, whether it’s academics or where we spend money, … all those are part of how we improve our city,” Avant told Chalkbeat ahead of the report’s release.

Specifically, the study compared the percent of businesses owned by white women and people of color who are “willing and able” to do work for the school district to the amount of money spent with those businesses from 2011 to 2016.

Here’s a quick summary. (For a more detailed chart, scroll to the bottom of this page.)

Business owners interviewed by researchers identified several barriers encountered when attempting to work with the district. Almost half cited competing with large firms as the biggest concern. (Nationwide, only 4 percent of black-owned businesses have more than one employee.)

The district commissioned the study last fall from MGT Consulting Group based in Tallahassee, Florida, under a $254,000 contract. The group reports completing more than 200 such studies, including one in 2012 for the Memphis utility company.

In anticipation of the findings, Shelby County Schools recently hired Brenda Allen as its procurement director to spearhead efforts to close the gap. In addition to recommending the new initiative, the study recommends hiring three more people under Allen to assist with “outreach, reporting, and monitoring” to increase contracts with businesses owned by white women and people of color.

The consultant said the district’s procurement team should “document their outreach efforts and the reasons why they may have rejected qualified” businesses.

The findings reflect disparities countywide. More than half of Memphis businesses are black-owned, but generate less than 1 percent of the city’s business revenue, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Small Business Owners. Five years earlier, the number was closer to 2 percent. And similar gaps in county government spending were found in a 2016 study.


High Ground News: Memphis pushes to level the playing field for black entrepreneurs


The report commended the leadership of Shelby County Schools for its desire to decrease disparities in business contracts after years of inattention to the issue — and relatively soon after the 2013 merger of city and county schools.

You can read the full report here.

Want to learn more? Join High Ground News, Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism on Jan. 25 for “Show Mem The Money: The Education Edition,” a conversation with Memphis education leaders about how the business of education can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses as one of the city’s largest employers.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.