Money time

A proposed budget for Memphis schools comes out this week. Here’s what we know so far.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Shelby County Schools’ next budget will include teacher and hourly employee raises, more school resource officers, and additional behavior specialists, based on early conversations among Memphis school leaders.

It will also include money to expand school improvement efforts aimed at keeping low-performing schools out of the state’s reach.

And to do it all, the Memphis district will need to take at least $15 million out of its reserves, according to preliminary numbers. District administrators are scheduled to present a proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year to school board members 4 p.m. Wednesday.

From the archives: Why Shelby County Schools has $84 million sitting in a savings account

The budget so far doesn’t include any major new initiatives as the district circles its wagons to strengthen strategies already in place.

Last year, the Memphis district for the first time since the consolidated district was created in 2013 started its budget-setting process in the black after years of severe cuts. That budget included a raise for high-performing teachers, a $300,000 boost to struggling schools, and adding two schools to the district’s Innovation Zone for its lowest performing schools.

Here’s what we know so far about what has been discussed to include in the 2018-19 budget:

Teacher and hourly employee raises: Calling on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis 50 years ago on behalf of public workers battling low wages, Hopson announced last month all hourly full-time employees would make at least $15 per hour under his budget. That would cost about $2.4 million and impact about 1,200 employees such as warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers.

Hopson also said Monday the budget would include money for teacher raises for the third straight year. About 90 percent of teachers are considered high-performing and would be eligible for pay increases.

More school resource officers: Measures to increase school safety have been at the forefront following a fatal school shooting in Florida that has sparked lots of student activism. In the midst of countywide task force on school safety, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told WMC he wanted to add more law enforcement officers in schools. Just how many and to which schools has not been released.

Overhaul career and technical education: As part of the state’s shift to not only prepare students for college, but also directly enter the workforce, Shelby County Schools is planning more classes and certifications focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

Behavior specialists: One of the wish list items board members had was to expand the district’s 19-member team that works with students to get to the “why” behind their misbehavior and prevent suspensions. The team so far has found success in reducing suspensions and represents one of many positions slowly being brought back from previous budget cuts.

Add American Way Middle to the iZone: The long-struggling school has been the center of controversy with the Tennessee Department of Education as the state rolled out its first school improvement plan under its new accountability model. It’s unclear, however, if the move to the iZone, which typically costs about $600,000, will save it from state takeover in 2019.

Expand the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone: Another initiative aimed at staving off state intervention is set to grow by five schools: Geeter Middle, Manor Lake Elementary, Whitehaven Elementary, Oakshire Elementary, Robert R. Church Elementary, and John P. Freeman Elementary. The move reaches beyond the original scope of the program to include schools outside of Whitehaven High School’s feeder pattern.

Continue funding “critical focus schools”: This school year was the first under Hopson’s plan to invest in 19 struggling schools instead of just closing them. Antonio Burt, an assistant superintendent over low-performing schools, said last month plans on how much money will be allocated to the initiative are still being determined.

The public can hear more about the budget during the board’s work session Tuesday, April 17. The school board is expected to vote Tuesday, April 24 when there will also be a public comment period. The budget would then go to the local funding body, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, for approval.

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.