money matters

After Cuomo calls for belt-tightening, New York’s Board of Regents look to lawmakers for more school aid

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Rosa at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School

Less than a week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a modest increase in school spending, the state’s top education policymakers began plotting ways to secure more funding.

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa rallied her fellow board members at a meeting Monday, urging them to shift their focus onto the state legislature, which must negotiate a final budget with the governor. She said the board should come up with a unified plan for pressuring lawmakers, adding that State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia would continue to make the case for more funding in public and in private conversations with legislators.

Now the question becomes: What else can we do to continue to move that agenda forward?” Rosa said to the group. “I’d like us to do it in a collective kind of way so that it doesn’t become a free-for-all.”

In the 2018 spending plan that Cuomo released last week, he proposed a $769 million increase in education funding — less than half the amount that the Board of Regents had called for. Rosa and Elia issued a statement soon after the budget came out saying they were “concerned.”

They may face an uphill battle as they prepare to urge lawmakers to haggle for more school aid. New York is staring down a projected budget deficit, responding to a federal tax overhaul that could limit the state’s ability to raise revenue, and bracing for the possibility of further federal cuts.

Even as the Regents got set to resist Cuomo’s spending plan, Commissioner Elia pushed back against another one of the governor’s proposals.

In his budget plan, Cuomo suggested that the state education department and his budget office be given final approval of local school-district budgets. The added oversight is meant to ensure that the neediest schools receive their fair share of funding, but Elia raised concerns that it could usurp local officials’ authority.

“I think there’s some concerns, clearly, on someone from [the state education department] and or the division of budget separated from a school and their community saying you can’t do something on your budget,” Elia told reporters Monday outside the Regents meeting.

Now that the governor has submitted his budget, lawmakers in each chamber will craft counteroffers. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, has already signaled that he wants a sizeable increase in school funding this year. But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, has spoken in general terms about spending restraint.

The board is also pushing for extra funding for specific purposes, such as support for students learning English. The Regents had called for spending an additional $85 million on English learners this year, but this request did not make it into the governor’s budget.

Regent Luis Reyes, a longtime advocate for English learners, asked how the board can ensure that this goal does not get lost in the shuffle.

“How do we spend the rest of January, February, and March publicly and/or privately to get this pillar to be built and not to be dismantled?” he asked.

Living wages

More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.