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.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks with reporters Tuesday about his budget amendment, which includes $30 million for a school safety plan.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra projects this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed spending $27 million on safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. The possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers will soon begin campaigning for re-election this fall.)

Education already was receiving a solid bump in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January. His budget for 2018-19 allocates an extra $212 million for K-12 schools, including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to equip school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets, as several legislative proposals have tried to do. Haslam acknowledged that it’s just a beginning.

“Is it the final solution on school bus safety? No, but it does [make a start],” he said.

The governor presented his school spending plan to lawmakers on the same day that one House panel was scheduled to consider whether to give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. That bill, sponsored by Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro, easily cleared its first legislative hurdle on Feb. 28 and has since amassed close to 50 lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors in the House.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

More money

What Colorado’s booming economy might mean for the state education budget

More money is forecast to appear below the gold dome (Denver Post photo).

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to put an extra $200 million into education next year and another $100 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but a lot of that money could go to offset hits to districts from anticipated reforms to the state’s pension program and reductions in local tax revenue.

The proposal comes in response to new economic forecasts released Monday that show Colorado having more money than previously expected.

Legislative economists predict that lawmakers will have a whopping $1.3 billion or 11.5 percent more to spend or save in 2018-19 than is budgeted in 2017-18. The forecast from the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget predicts similar increases in revenue. After meeting the reserve requirement of 6.5 percent, Colorado will have an additional $492 million in reserve for this fiscal year, and even with a higher reserve of 8 percent proposed for next fiscal year, the state would have an additional $548.1 million in 2018-19. 

It’s normal for the forecasts to be slightly different because the economic analysts often use slightly different assumptions. In this case, the governor’s office predicts that the additional revenue will be more spread out over this fiscal year and the next one, while legislative economists think more of the money will be coming in next year. That difference means the legislative forecast shows the state potentially hitting the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, despite lawmakers making more room under the cap just last year, while the governor’s forecast does not.

These are the numbers that the Joint Budget Committee has been waiting for to finalize its recommendations for the 2018-19 budget year. Republicans and advocates for more transportation spending have already seized on the numbers to support a plan to ask voters to approve new debt to pay for road construction and dedicate up to $300 million a year to pay off that debt.

Of course, these forecasts are also inherently speculative – and legislative economists warned these forecasts contain even more uncertainty than usual.

State Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, summed up the message as one of caution about dedicating too much of the new revenue to ongoing expenses. The more that gets committed, the harder it will be for the state to meet all of those commitments in future years.

Those who want to see Colorado spend more on K-12 education have pushed back on the Republican roads bill out of fear that the commitment could make it harder to send more money to schools in the future.

The governor’s budget director Henry Sobanet recommended treating much of this new money as “one-time” funds that should go to “one-time” uses. In a letter to the Joint Budget Committee, he laid out a plan.

In the case of roads spending, he’s recommending an extra $500 million for road construction in 2018-19, but only $150 million in 2019-20. And in the case of education, he’s recommending an additional $200 million in 2018-19 and an additional $100 million the following year.

However, this extra money might not show up in classrooms – or rather, it might show up in a lack of cuts rather than new money.

The governor’s budget request already called for a reduction in the budget stabilization factor of $100 million. That’s the amount by which Colorado underfunds K-12 education compared to the requirements of Amendment 23. In this budget year, it’s $822 million, after a mid-year adjustment. Some of the extra money could go toward reducing it even further.

However, Sobanet said he envisions most of it going to offset reductions in local property tax revenue that will be caused by a provision of the Colorado constitution that governs the ratio between residential and commercial property tax revenue.

It’s also possible that school districts could end up having to pay more toward some sort of agreement on changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. The final form of reforms to PERA is far from certain.

“Another downgrade in the residential assessment rate means more state share to keep total per pupil spending up,” Sobanet said. “We know that since the December announcement of property taxes and since we know PERA might be on the table for something, let’s set aside some resources and make sure we can handle this.”