Final address

Mayor calls for more science, early education in Memphis-area schools

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell gives his last State of the County address at Clayborn Temple in downtown Memphis.

The outgoing county mayor who oversees school funding in Memphis called Tuesday for his successor to invest more in pre-school and classes that focus on science, math, and technology.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said both needs should be prioritized if the county that includes one of the nation’s most impoverished cities is to land more high-wage jobs and keep its young people out of prison.

In his last State of the County address, the two-term Republican mayor and former sheriff touted the county’s annual contribution to preschool classrooms that reached $3 million in recent years. But, he said, it’s still not enough, especially as the expiration approaches of a $70 million federal grant paying for pre-K classrooms in Shelby County and Nashville.

“Failure to invest in proven prevention programs will result in short-term quick fixes with little lasting value,” he told members of the Rotary Club of Memphis. “Head Start, pre-kindergarten, and K-12 education, along with intervention initiatives like Second Chance and re-entry programs, are proven successes worthy of community support.”

Luttrell’s office presents an education budget for county commissioners’ approval every year. He has advocated aggressively for Shelby County Schools to pay down its retiree benefits obligation and for more state funding for local education, but he did not address either issue on Tuesday.

Shelby County’s education landscape has experienced major changes since Luttrell was elected county mayor in 2010. A few months after his election, the board of Memphis City Schools voted to give up its charter in response to the likelihood of the county system siphoning off its tax dollars to fund suburban schools. That left Shelby County government as basically the sole funding agent for local education. Also, the state-run Achievement School District began taking over Memphis schools in 2012, further complicating the distribution of money for schools. And just a year after the merger, the county splintered into seven school systems.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell

Increasing access to early childhood education and certification in science and technology related careers has been a priority for Shelby County Schools this year. The district is preparing a proposal to revamp its career and technical education programs to attract more students and has worked with City Council and child care nonprofit Porter-Leath toward creating a spot for every child to attend preschool.

Luttrell noted that Shelby County Schools, which is slightly bigger than the former city district, has one of the highest funding rates per student in Tennessee, yet has many of the state’s worst performing schools.

“To be clear, this is not an indictment or the sole responsibility of Shelby County Schools. We all bear responsibility as parents, teachers, elected officials, as taxpayers, as the faith-based community,” he said. “It is with the cornerstone of a good, quality education that we begin to turn the tide in those areas of crime, poverty, and poor population health.”

Without that foundation, he said, more students will filter into the county’s juvenile justice system that’s now under federal oversight. (Luttrell has attempted to end federal monitoring before all goals are met.)

“The oversimplified, but not untrue, explanation is that if we do not fund schools we must fund prisons,” he said. “Let’s keep innovating and finding opportunities to keep our kids in school, out of the justice system, and towards a better future.”

Luttrell’s term expires in August. Attending his final address were two candidates to replace him: county trustee David Lenoir and county commissioner Terry Roland.

You can read Luttrell’s full remarks below:

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.

School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.