Budget process

With Shelby County budget settled, Hopson reflects on process

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Shelby County Schools since the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and the legacy Shelby County district.

In just two years of overseeing a merged school district, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has shepherded through the majority of its $275 million in budget cuts — mostly the result of a student exodus and the ending of multimillion-dollar grants.

Cutting the budget is the toughest part of his job, Hopson said recently as the district completed one fiscal year and began a new one on July 1.

“Year after year we’ve had to cut,” Hopson said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “You keep cutting closer and closer to the classroom.”

With Monday’s vote by the Shelby County Commission to sign off on its 2015-16 tax rate and spending plan, including money for K-12 education, Shelby County Schools moves into its third fiscal year as a district.

The state’s largest school system expects to spend $986 million this school year to educate 109,489 students at 151 schools. That averages out to about $8,900 per student. Last year, the district spent $954 million to educate 117,269 students at 160 schools. The average per-pupil cost was $8,134.

The district cut $125 million from its 2015-16 budget by laying off 500 employees, closing two schools and moving hundreds of other students from other schools being taken over by the state’s Achievement School District.

Hopson said he hopes the fiscal bleeding will slow as a result of this year’s budget-cutting process — in which he opted to use a scalpel instead of an ax — and the district’s decision to prioritize investments to turnaround schools with low test scores.

Last year, Hopson ordered each department leader to cut 20 percent from their departmental budgets — a process that he said forced the district to lose positions and programs that were crucial to the district’s operation. This year, the administration worked with a consultant during a three-day retreat to rank spending priorities based on district goals, allowing administrators to cut positions and programs accordingly.

The Innovation Zone, the district’s intensive turnaround program for academically struggling schools, was identified as a top district priority. The expanding initiative received an additional investment of $7 million by tapping into settlement money from a longstanding lawsuit with the city of Memphis.

“We’ve under-invested in these schools for so long, it’s only right that we start investing in them now. And we’re seeing great results,” Hopson said.

The district also opted to resurrect four truancy centers to tamper down on chronic student absenteeism — an issue that not only affects student performance but per-pupil funding from the state.

"We have to do more with less."Dorsey Hopson

Hopson bemoaned, however, the loss of key positions this year including counselors, social workers and information technology support staff who will be missed when the district switches to online testing next school year.

To the 500 educators who lost their jobs in recent layoffs, most of whom were teachers, Hopson said he’s empathetic.

“We have to do more with less,” he said. “But I don’t like the uncertainty that it’s created and the emotional toll on the staff. We’re constantly closing schools and losing teachers. While it’s uncomfortable, 92 percent of those teachers have managed to find a job with us the next year.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.