Here’s a first look into Memphis school budget priorities under Joris Ray

Interim superintendent Joris Ray put dollars to his priorities for Shelby County Schools with a $1.03 billion budget outlook given to school board members on Thursday.

District staff previewed Ray’s priorities at a school board committee meeting, including adding new schools to the district turnaround zone, universal screening for a gifted student program, and adding advance courses for high schoolers.

“First we have to talk about where we are,” Lin Johnson, a deputy superintendent, told board members. “Then we have to drill down to what the root causes are. And then I think it’s that development of a strategy to align resources to that root cause.”

Related: Memphis plan would expand turnaround program, screen all first-graders for gifted education

Even though the board is about to hire a national search firm to look for a new superintendent, Ray has not been shy about pushing through initiatives that he believes will improve academic performance in Memphis schools. His other priorities include giving nine high schools laptops for every student, and improving literacy by holding back second-graders who are not reading at grade level.

The preliminary numbers include a 2.5 percent pay raise for educators from the state, proposed by Gov. Bill Lee earlier this month and a 2 percent raise for other school staff.

Ray is considering spending about $50 million less, or almost 5 percent less, than was requested in this year’s budget. Lin Johnson, a deputy superintendent, said district staff plan to clarify priorities in conjunction with the board.

The board is mulling a policy to hold back second-graders who don’t meet reading benchmarks. About 27 percent of third-graders in Shelby County Schools are proficient in reading based on state tests — a six-point jump from the previous year. But the district is still not where it should be to meet its goal of 90 percent of its third-graders reading at grade level by 2025.

Board member Stephanie Love said none of the district’s goals are possible without finding better ways to reach parents.

“That’s how we start the process of moving academic success because if the parent doesn’t understand, he or she can’t help you,” she said during the meeting. “Teachers are frustrated so they’re banging their heads against the wall, the child still can’t read and our ACT scores are 23 percent,” ready for college.

The budget preview also listed “additional social-emotional learning support and services,” such as psychologists, counselors, and social workers, but did not provide specifics.

In the past two years, Shelby County Schools has consistently added counselors after years of slashing staff. The district also brought back behavior specialists to prevent out-of-school suspensions and work with students to improve behavior.

The school board will meet again Monday to discuss budget priorities. Johnson did not have an expected time frame for presenting a proposed budget.