Business of education

Memphis school leaders pledge ‘a new day’ in contracting with diverse business owners

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Shelby County Schools hosted a networking event for businesses owned by people of color and white women on Thursday.

Shelby County Schools revealed its first public look at a policy that will help the district hire more businesses owned by people of color and white women.

The plan comes about seven months after a study commissioned by the school board highlighted wide disparities. It found that one third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

The new proposal sets the groundwork for how to get contracts and expand the district’s business database, and it requires contractors to show “good faith efforts” to reach out to diverse businesses when searching for subcontractors.

Shelby County Schools hosted a networking event for business owners Thursday to explain the policy and invite businesses to participate. The school board first saw the proposal during a committee meeting earlier this month.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Brian Stockton, the district’s chief of staff, speaks at Thursday’s event.

“This is not about compliance,” said Brian Stockton, the district’s chief of staff, to the crowd of about 150 business owners. “This is a program for people who have been locked out for a very long time.”

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest school district, one of the top five employers in Memphis, and oversees a budget in excess of $1 billion, about a third of which is used to pay contractors.

District leaders said they see equitable business as a way to combat the poverty that 60 percent of their students face, most of whom are students of color. If their parents and other adults can contribute more and benefit from the local economy, students will be less likely to come to school burdened by the effects of poverty.

The staff, policy, and practices that business owners say were once more inclusive largely disappeared during the tumultuous merger of city and county school systems in 2013.

“It was hard to get your name on a list to get business. … You see the same vendors over and over,” said Trina Williams.

She works for Cushion Employer Services, a consultant that helped mediate employer interviews for the district during the merger. Since then, the company, owned by people of color, has had a hard time getting its foot in the door.

“There wasn’t a forum before to connect,” Williams said. Thursday’s event “makes you feel more comfortable to approach [the district] rather than feel like you’re harassing them for information you need.”

Shelby County Schools will work with other agencies to approve what businesses qualify to bid on contracts. For example, the district will accept approval from agencies such as the City of Memphis, Memphis Light, Gas, and Water, or the Women Business Enterprise Council.

People of color and white woman would apply to be on the district’s database. They can also act as contractors who hire other approved businesses. Contractors seeking to hire diverse businesses would be responsible for reaching out to the businesses on the database.

If a business owner doesn’t meet the district’s goals for hiring for a project, they must show documentation that they tried to employ or contact diverse businesses, or face a $20,000 fine.

“We are committed to getting it right,” said board member Teresa Jones.

School board members are expected to approve the draft policy in the next few months. If approved, the program would last until October 2025. You can view a copy of the draft policy and the district’s proposed goals below. (Update, Aug. 29, 2018: The school board approved the policy.)

Goals for Shelby County Schools’ business diversity program

“Utilization by SCS” shows the percent of contract dollars Shelby County Schools spent with businesses owned by people of color and white women. The recommended goal is from the disparity study. Some of the district’s proposed goals exceed the recommended goals from the disparity study. 

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”


Denver school board pledges to make sure LGBTQ students are ‘seen, accepted, and celebrated’

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Ellie Ozbayrak, 4, sports rainbow wings at the annual PrideFest celebration at Civic Center Park June 18, 2016.

In response to reports that the Trump administration may seek to narrowly define gender as a condition determined by genitalia at birth, the Denver school board Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution in support of transgender students and staff members.

“The board, with its community members and partners, find this federal action to be cruel and harmful to our students and employees,” the resolution said. Denver Public Schools “will not allow our students, staff, and families to feel that they are being erased.”

The Trump administration has not yet made a final decision. But the threat of reversing actions taken under the Obama administration to recognize transgender Americans has prompted protests across the country, including a recent walkout at Denver’s North High School.

Several Denver students thanked the school board Thursday for the resolution, which says the board “wholeheartedly embraces DPS’s LGBTQ+ students, employees, and community members for the diversity they bring to our schools and workplaces, and strives to ensure that they are seen, accepted, and celebrated for who they truly are.”

“It is amazing to hear each and every single one of your ‘ayes,’” said a student named Skyler.

The resolution lists several ways the district supports transgender students and staff, including not requiring them “to undertake any expensive formal legal process to change their names in DPS student or personnel records” and honoring their pronoun preferences.

Read the entire resolution below.