liability liability

Changes to retiree benefits off the table for now, Hopson announces

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a forum in Memphis last summer before the Shelby County Board of Education to discuss proposed cost-cutting changes to their retirement plans.

Retired educators from Shelby County Schools won’t see their health benefits cut anytime soon, after the district tabled a proposal that would have passed along costs to retirees.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced that he was backing off on the proposal, which had drawn sharp protest from retirees, during a board meeting Tuesday evening. He instead asked the board to find other ways to reduce the district’s ballooning retirement benefits costs.

“I know how passionate you are about our retirees,” Hopson told board members. “We don’t want to place people we’ve made promises to in a bad position.”

Hundreds of retirees complained at a public forum earlier this month that the district was seeking to save money on the backs of sick senior citizens by breaking a promise made to new teachers decades ago.

Daisy Cleaves, the former president of the district’s Retired Teachers Association who has been an outspoken critic of the proposed changes, said she was relieved that cuts in benefits are off the table for now.

“I’m going to go up there and shake [Hopson’s] hand and thank him for giving me peace and love,” Cleaves said. “I’m glad they’re going to slow this process down. There was just so much stress and so much coming at us at once.”

The cash-strapped district is still under pressure to reduce the amount it’s on the hook to spend on retired employees’ health and life insurance, known as Other Post-Employment Benefits, or OPEB costs. The way the district’s insurance plan is structured, the district is not contributing enough to cover retirees’ real costs. Last year, the district faced $1.5 billion in liability, or possible costs, which it could have covered by contributing about $120 million to the insurance pool. But budget cuts because of declining student enrollment limited the district’s contribution to less than $30 million.

That gap has become a significant sticking point in the district’s efforts to manage its budget. After cutting $125 million from its 2015-2016 budget to cover other costs, Hopson asked the county last month for additional funds to support the district’s regular operations. Commissioners said any additional funds would have to go toward the retirement benefits.

Hopson is still recommending that the board not extend benefits after retirement to anyone who joins the district starting in July 2016. And the board could decide to resurrect the benefits cuts for current retirees — who number 8,000 — in the future.

Other options that Hopson has asked the board to consider included cutting retirees a check to shop and pay for their own insurance plan and switching retirees to a state plan whose costs are managed by having more participants. On Tuesday, the board also heard a recommendation that the district start making insurance payments into a trust fund so that interest over time could reduce liability costs.

Several board members have requested that they hire an outside consultant to help them determine the best option.

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.