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:

School Finance

Teacher raises would survive $211 million cut from Indianapolis Public Schools funding request

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis’ largest school district cut about $211 million Tuesday from its request for extra funding, in a bid to win public support for the proposal.

That lower price tag comes with tradeoffs, district officials said. Even if voters approve the new plan, the district would dip into its cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans, such as additional busing for students who move partway through the school year.

The new request also reduces how much the district would raise to pay for services for students with disabilities, though it was initially unclear by how much and how that could affect students.

But district officials said they still expected to be able to give raises to teachers if the referendums pass.

The scaled-back request would raise about $725 million over eight years, significantly less than the initial proposal of nearly $1 billion.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of reducing the amount of money the district is seeking, backing off the number members approved two months ago.

Board member Kelly Bentley said many school districts around the state have asked taxpayers for more money.

“We all own property in IPS. None of us want to see our taxes go up,” she said. But, she added, “I am confident that it’s money that’s going to be well spent, and it’s money that is necessary.”

Instead of pulling back spending on teachers and school staff, the district is making the new plan work by adjusting revenue expectations, said Chief Financial Manager Weston Young. The proposal is built on the assumption that state revenue will increase 1 percent each year, and the district will no longer hold as much money in reserves, he said.

“We are still committed to our students through our compensation for teachers and the wraparound services that serve those kids,” Young said.

Reducing the request could help build enthusiasm for the tax increase, which has not gotten much vocal community support. Instead, the referendums have been met with some concern over the size of the ask. But even though they have pared down their plan, district leaders will still need to persuade voters in May to raise their own taxes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new plan is a balancing act between what taxpayers can bear and the cost of providing the level of service that families need. Ultimately, he said, the tax increase would pay dividends by helping the district prepare students for college and careers.

“This is one of those situations where you pay now or you pay later,” he said.

The move cut the potential tax increase for homeowners in IPS to $0.58 per $100 of assessed value, down from the initial proposal of $0.73. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $17.70 per month for operating expenses and $5.54 per month for building improvements, according to the district.

The referendum the board reduced would pay for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, and under the new request, it would raise about $66 million per year for eight years. That’s down from the initial request of about $92 million per year.

Under the new plan, about $49 million of the money raised each year would go to staff pay, while the remaining $17 million would help pay for services and supplies, regular maintenance, and transportation.

A second measure, which was not changed, would pay for about $200 million in improvements to buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security. Both measures are expected to go before voters in May.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.