Game on

Citing ‘dire’ budget situation for Shelby County Schools, Hopson rallies employees for funding

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has led Tennessee's largest school district since 2013 and has been challenged in 2017 by allegations of grade tampering in some Shelby County schools.

As budget season kicks off for Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is warning employees that the cash-strapped school system faces a “dire situation” and urging them to advocate for increased funding from county and state governments.

In a letter emailed late last week to 14,500 employees, Hopson said the district’s projected budget gap for next school year is about $40 million — a gap that will be hard to close without directly impacting classrooms.

“We’ve had to make very difficult decisions over the past few years to ensure our cuts do not affect the classroom, including closing schools with low enrollment, significantly reducing Central Office staff, outsourcing some District services and cutting more than $200 million out of the General Fund Budget, which could’ve been used to provide additional support to our students,” Hopson writes.

“… But this year could be different. Without significant funding from the Shelby County Commission or the State of Tennessee, it will be difficult to avoid cuts to our classrooms.”

Hopson will present his proposed spending plan during a school board work session this Wednesday, but emphasized that the proposed budget is not final and that “cuts can still be avoided.”

He encouraged employees to contact county commissioners and state lawmakers to ask for more funding. He also directed them to a website developed with community partners to serve as a hub of information during the process. The website, launched last week and titled “Students Deserve More!,” details what the district says is a lack of adequate investment from the city, county and state. It also gives an overview of potential cuts:

  • A decrease in benefits for educators and staff
  • Fewer assistant principals and building leaders at smaller schools
  • More school closures
  • Reduction in summer school offerings
  • Decrease in pay for substitute teachers
  • Adjusting mileage (distance) requirements for students receiving bus transportation
  • Outsourcing more district services
  • Eliminating more central office jobs (central office staff makes up less than 2 percent of the district’s budget, according to the website)

The Hopson-endorsed campaign reflects ongoing tension between the district and local and state governments over the adequacy of school funding, as well as the spending habits of school leaders. Increasingly across Tennessee, local government leaders say they’re picking up too much slack for the state when it comes to funding the true cost of K-12 education. Last August, Shelby County’s school board sued the state over its education funding plan known as the the Basic Education Program, or BEP, charging that the state is not equitably and adequately funding public education for all students. However, Gov. Bill Haslam says the state has been increasing education spending annually during his administration at a time when many state governments are cutting back.

In Shelby County, the “Students Deserve More!” campaign represents an escalated level of community organization beyond past efforts.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before coming from Shelby County Schools,” said state Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis. “I’m hoping it will at least be a beginning of getting parents involved in the process. … Between the state and county, we should be able to come up with a solution so that we don’t have our children suffering.”

Commission Chairman Terry Roland said the campaign won’t make much difference from his perspective, however.

“I’m making my decisions based on dollars and cents. We can’t break the county and give (the district) everything they want,” Roland said. “The state is causing this problem because the state is not fully funding the BEP.”

Roland said additional county dollars shouldn’t be needed when other cuts could be made, such as consolidating several schools that are under-enrolled. When Shelby County administrators went to the commission last year seeking an extra $14 million, they received about half of that.

“If you gave the schools every dime they asked for, it’s a never-ending hole and we’re not going to fill it,” Roland said. “You can’t keep asking for money when you can’t spend what you get right.”

County Mayor Mark Luttrell said late last week that he encourages community engagement about education but will reserve judgment about the district’s budget needs until he sees its final spending plan, scheduled to come before the commission on May 25.

“I’m hoping as they look at their needs, that deficit will be narrowed,” Luttrell said, adding that commissioners will have lots of questions. “It should be a healthy dialogue; it usually is.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.