under the knife

Education is not spared in city's latest round of budget cuts

To make up for an unexpected budget shortfall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is bringing city agencies under the knife—and for the second year in a row, the Department of Education will not be spared from midyear cuts.

On Friday, Bloomberg announced that the city’s agencies would have to collectively cut $2 billion, and the department’s share in the burden would amount to 1.6 percent of its own budget this year, and 4 percent next year.

Last fall, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the central offices would take the brunt of midyear cuts, but he skirted the issue of the city’s budget shortfall, which numbered in the billions and portended more cuts for 2012. This year, the schools budget was held flat—a fact that was hailed as an improvement by city officials and councilmembers, but still felt like a cut to many educators, who saw the costs of supplies, special education services, and teacher salaries continue to rise.

As we reported last year, midyear budget cuts like the ones being prepared for now are especially disruptive to schools because most expenses are fixed for the whole year. That means that only certain costs, such as after-school programs or tutoring, can go on the chopping block. And four straight years of budget cuts have already left class sizes on the rise and principals struggling to make ends meet.

“If we’ve got to cut, we’re going to be very tight, midyear, which would be a shame,” one principal who asked not to be identified said this afternoon.

Department officials have declined to say what areas are likely to see cuts this fall once the department submits its budget outline, due Oct. 4, to the Office of Management and Budget. That could mean individual schools are less likely to receive the same good news they heard last year, when Walcott quickly announced that midyear cuts would only hit the central offices shortly after Bloomberg first announced them.

Some schools were able to avoid cutting teachers in previous years by saving money in a rainy-day fund. But because city officials said they did not expect to impose more cuts after they set this fiscal year’s budget, the potential new cuts would catch principals off guard.

If some of this year’s cuts come out of the schools’ budgets, as they did in 2010, it could mean class sizes will rise as schools remove teaching positions. It could also mean cuts to librarians, arts and music teachers, and other specialized positions that are often among the first to go when schools make cuts.

“The first place people are going to look to cut will be what you have to pay for in addition to your teacher salaries,” for example tutoring sessions on Saturday mornings before exams, and replacement computer equipment, a Brooklyn high school principal said. “You always look to not have personnel be the issue.”

“It’s always a guessing game,” the principal said. “This year we spent our money on lowering class size in our 9th and 10th grade classes, which basically involves hiring additional people. That put more pressure on our upper grade classes. We are hoping to
ameliorate some of those pressures by hiring another teacher midyear if budget allows, but I’m certain that if we’re having budget cuts we won’t be able to.”

“Sometimes people retire midyear, so schools will look to see if they can cover those classes without hiring another person,” the principal added. “The only way to do that is to increase class sizes. That’s how we saved money in past years, but that’s exactly what we were hoping to avoid this year.”

In 2008, tasked with cutting $180 million mid-year, department officials took from school budgets, cut 475 administrative positions centrally, and eliminated positions for social workers and other service providers. In 2009, when the city cut $405 million from the department’s budget, schools had to make deep cuts to extracurricular activities and professional development programming, and in some cases, reduce their teaching force. The following year, Bloomberg asked the department to begin making more cuts in preparation for the budget shortfall projected for the 2012 fiscal year. That announcement resulted in schools carving out 1 percent of their budgets, a total of $79 million, in January 2010.

A department administrator who helmed a large high school through the years of budget cuts said school leaders making cuts once the school year is underway must consider what changes would affect students the least.

The administrator, who also did not want to be identified, said in past years she considered cutting school aids, skimping on new computers, and eliminating extra tasks that would require the school to pay teachers “per session” overtime fees. For some school leaders, those tasks could include out of class tutoring for students struggling to pass classes or prepare for state tests, and data analysis for those trying to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede