student-based budgeting

For the first time, money for Memphis schools will be based on student needs. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Wynn Earle greets students at Kingsbury Elementary School during lunch most days.

The children at Kingsbury Elementary School thought it was funny to have a teacher sitting at a tiny desk, working side-by-side with them.

But Dawn Grayson shadowed several students to help her understand how a new way of allocating money could change the way her Memphis school operates.

Grayson has been part of a team at Kingsbury preparing to switch to a school finance model known as student-based budgeting. It’s a key component of Shelby County Schools’ efforts to ensure state and local money is distributed based on student need.

She was looking at how English language learners, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities, spent their day to help her determine the school’s most urgent needs.

“It’s important that we do step back and say, how do we make this more student-centered?” said Grayson, who has taught English learners there for six years. “We can’t figure out their needs unless we walk their walk.”

But whether or not student-based budgeting will actually help solve school inequities remains to be seen.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kingsbury Elementary School teachers and staff, including two new teacher assistants hired under new funds from student-based budgeting in Shelby County Schools, receive training.

Currently, every school receives money based on student enrollment and the number of teachers it takes to teach those students. The final amount given to a school is primarily based on the teachers’ salaries, and the supplies and resources the school needs. The traditional model usually allocates less money to schools with high-needs students because they generally employ less-experienced, lower-paid teachers.

Under the new method that goes into effect for the 2018-19 school year, every school will receive $3,400 per student. Additional money will then be allocated depending on four factors recently determined by Shelby County Schools: first-time readers, students with disabilities, students who score exceptionally high or low on state tests, and students who often move from one home to another.

Altogether, about $377 million, or a little more than a one-third, of the district’s proposed $1.05 billion budget is dedicated to student-based budgeting. How the rest of the money is spent will still be decided by the district’s central office. Charter schools authorized by the district are excluded from the new formula and will still receive money based on student enrollment.


Read more about student-based budgeting and how other districts, such as Nashville, have transitioned to this model.


At the heart of the funding model is allowing principals to make their own decisions about what kinds of jobs are needed and what materials their schools need. The district’s national consultant, Education Resource Strategies, has trained teams at six Memphis schools for the past two years: Brownsville Road Elementary, Craigmont Middle, Craigmont High, Kingsbury Elementary, Kingsbury Middle, and Kingsbury High.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson, chief of finance

“We see this as empowering principals to make the changes that they think they need to make to promote bottom-up innovation,” said Lin Johnson, who has been the district’s chief finance officer since 2015.

During his three years as principal of Kingsbury Elementary, Wynn Earle didn’t talk much about budgeting because it was never in his control.

“I could want all these positions but I would not have the financial resources to acquire those people,” he said.

With an infusion of about $164,000 under the new model, Earle hired two education assistants and another full-time physical education teacher so that other teachers could have 40 more minutes of planning time every day. Some of the money will also go toward substitutes so that teachers can have more time for training during the school day.

He has hired another bilingual mentor to lead monthly parent meetings with Hispanic families, who make up two-thirds of the student population. Thanks to the new dollars, those meetings will have dinner, and kits to teach parents how to read to their children.

Planning how to spend the money, he said, gave him the opportunity to work more closely with teachers, parents, and even other schools his students will attend, to identify the school’s most urgent needs.

“It made us evaluate ourselves from the inside out,” he said.

The district hasn’t released individual school budgets yet. Johnson said the public will be able to see how much each school will get before the new fiscal year starts July 1. Some schools may see a dip in funding because of the formula or because of an anticipated drop in enrollment. In the first year, a school won’t get more than a 6 percent boost or a 2.5 percent cut, Johnson said, so there won’t be drastic changes in the beginning.

The district will start with principals who have been at their schools at least two years, have a high score on their annual performance evaluation, and whose schools rank three or higher on the district’s five-point report card. Principals will submit applications with a plan on how they will use the money. And over time, the district hopes up to half the budget will be distributed this way. Leaders want to see this year’s results before deciding when to transition every school.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chris Caldwell

Chris Caldwell, who chairs the school board’s budget committee, said student-based budgeting needs to be assessed regularly to make sure it’s producing its intended purpose: equity in funding.

Student-based budgeting “can be helpful to identify inequities, but it doesn’t guarantee responses that will eliminate” them, he said, adding the state’s “outdated and inadequate” school staffing formula already puts Tennessee’s largest district at a disadvantage.

Here’s a breakdown of how much money follows students based on the four characteristics prioritized by Shelby County Schools:

Grade level. This is the most common characteristic cited by districts across the nation who use this model. Shelby County Schools will add $1,020 for each student in kindergarten through second grade, and $680 for third- through fifth-graders. That’s a high weight compared to other districts, said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University professor who studies school finance.

Johnson said the district put a high weight on younger students because the district is struggling to boost its reading levels. During the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of students in third grade were considered by the state to be reading on grade level. That’s far below the district’s goal of 90 percent by 2025.

Students with disabilities. Some costs for students who are disabled won’t be factored into the base amount allotted per student because the district wants to control how federal money and other grants for those students are spent. But the district plans to add $825 for each student with disabilities to contribute more to a school’s administrative and service costs.

Mobility. Instead of using a school’s poverty rate to determine higher need, district leaders want to measure how often students move from school to school, which they say is closely connected to poverty. Each student would garner $340 more for the school. A school’s mobility rate is the number of students who transfer there after the 20th day of school divided by the number of students who attend that year.

Student performance. Achievement on state tests is “one of the most important indicators of student need at a school” according to the district’s proposed budget. Shelby County Schools is hoping to target students transitioning to middle and high school by looking at state test score data for rising sixth- and ninth-graders. Schools will receive $340 for each student who scored below grade level and for each student who scored higher than their grade level on 2016-17 state tests. For elementary schools, that calculation will be based on fourth-graders.

Typically, low-performing students are considered to have the most need in student-based budgeting models that prioritize test scores. But Johnson said the district’s highest achievers also need more supports, such as more advanced courses and ACT preparation, to keep them engaged.

“It’s not just focusing on struggling students,” he said. “There are high-achievers who need to pushed.”

Roza, the Georgetown professor who specializes in this model, said her team does not recommend giving a school more money for students who already are ahead.

“We worry about that because of its equity implications,” she said. “Schools with high performers means that there’s fewer dollars for middle performing schools.”

Grayson, the Kingsbury Elementary teacher, interviewed many of the students she shadowed. She found that students – as well as herself – had little understanding of how money was allocated or spent. She said the new budgeting method gives everyone more opportunity to understand what goes on behind the scenes.

“We hope that it’s a step in the right direction to help students who need it most,” she said.

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


Five things to know about school resource officers in Tennessee

Bill to arm some Tennessee teachers with handguns dies


The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.