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.

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.

On school finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.