Leadership that controls school funding will change in Memphis this year. Here’s who is running

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell speaks during a voter registration drive at Central High School in Memphis. Three Republicans and two Democrats are seeking to replace him in the upcoming county election.

Leadership holding the pursestrings to Memphis schools will undergo a major shakeup this year as Shelby County voters elect a new mayor and a mostly new county commission.

With the final ballot set, three Republicans and two Democrats are seeking to replace outgoing Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell, a fiscal conservative who will end his eight-year administration in August. The Shelby County Election Commission will certify and set the ballot at its meeting Tuesday.

And with seven out of 13 county commissioners opting not to seek re-election — as well as contested races in all but three districts — most faces will be new on the county’s highest elected board.

The players are important to public education because they approve the final budgets for Shelby County Schools, which is Tennessee’s largest district, along with six suburban districts. (Part of the local taxpayer funding approved for Shelby County Schools also gets funneled to schools under the state-run Achievement School District.)

The primary election is on May 1, with the general election on Aug. 2.

As he began his last year in office, Luttrell called on the next iteration of leaders to invest more in early childhood education and classes that focus on science, math, and technology. And he told Chalkbeat that the next commission needs to continue to ask “tough questions” of Shelby County Schools.

“My concern is that we’re spending $11,000 per child in Shelby County, and we’re not seeing the results,” he said.

Candidates vying to succeed Luttrell include Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, a Democrat, and Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir, a Republican.

Harris has echoed Luttrell about the importance of early childhood education and also wants more investments in school facilities and career centers. He will face off in the primary election against former county commissioner Sidney Chism.

Lenoir, who has been endorsed by Luttrell, has said the next mayor must look at public safety and education through the lens of economic development. He is running in the Republican primary against County Commissioner Terry Roland and Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos.

The upcoming departure of several commissioners knowledgeable about Memphis schools will leave a void for others to fill. They include board chairwoman Heidi Schaefer; David Reaves, a former board member of Memphis City Schools; and Melvin Burgess, an employee of Shelby County Schools.

Commissioners Van Turner and Willie Brooks will run unopposed.

Of the 33 newcomer candidates, a handful have been vocal about education issues impacting Memphis.

J. Racquel Collins is the sole Democrat running for District 1, Roland’s current district that encompasses Millington and the surrounding area. An assistant dean at St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, she favors universal pre-K and programs that prepare students for both vocational-technical careers and college.

Sam Goff, the only Republican running for District 7, has said that while he wants to see county government paying down debt, education isn’t the place to make cuts. “ We’ve got to be able to get enough teachers per student that they can manage a class and find a way to help those kids that are lagging that don’t have the opportunities that other kids get,” said Goff, a former mortgage loan officer and president of the Evergreen Historic District Association and the Midtown Memphis Development Corp.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
At a voter registration drive at Central High School, 232 students signed up to vote ahead of the May 1 primary.

Several candidates have direct ties to education. Tami Sawyer is a Teach For America administrator running in District 7. She will face off in the Democratic primary against Stephanie Gatewood, a former board member with Memphis City Schools, and Eric Dunn, an education advocate and graduate of Northside High School. Sharon A. Webb, also a former city schools board member, is the only Republican running for District 9.

Jocelyn Stone, a senior at Central High School, got to hear some of the candidates last week while helping to register her fellow students to vote. This election will be her first time to vote, and she’s interested in the county commissioner races because that board controls funding for Memphis schools.

“I want to do my research this year,” Stone, 18, told Chalkbeat. “We can feel like our vote or voice doesn’t matter, but it does.”

You can see a full list of candidates for all county offices here. A forum for mayoral candidates is scheduled for Tuesday evening at Mt. Moriah-East Baptist Church.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information about candidates.

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.