Game on

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

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner

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.”

trumped up problems

As budget talks begin, top New York lawmaker eyes cuts from Washington

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

It’s Washington politics — not Albany’s — that are keeping state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie up at night as he girds himself for New York’s coming budget season.

New York is facing its own $4.4 billion budget deficit amid ongoing power struggles in Albany. Yet it’s the tax overhaul being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, along with possible federal spending cuts — both of which could take a bite out of funding for New York schools — that are worrying Heastie, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and is closely aligned with the New York City teachers union.

“Absent any other federal action that can do damage, I think we can manage that so that our schools will be fine and our healthcare can be fine,” he said Tuesday during a preview of next year’s legislative session hosted by the union. “It’s the unknown of what’s going to happen. What’s the next bad thing that Washington is looking to do.”

He was speaking at the union’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District, where he was interviewed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew as part of an ongoing discussion series. (Critics were quick to pounce on the event as evidence that Heastie does the union’s bidding.)

Heastie — who will negotiate the state budget with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate — has championed union issues in Albany. He supports the creation of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families, and has been less friendly to charter schools than his counterparts in the Senate.

During the discussion, Heastie did not say how much funding he would like to see allocated to education in the 2018-19 budget. But he noted that Cuomo typically builds a roughly billion-dollar increase to school aid into his budget — and that the Democratic-controlled Assembly usually looks to add more.

The state’s top education policymakers, the Board of Regents, released a budget proposal on Monday calling for a $1.6 billion increase in education spending. That is significantly less than their request last year, a sign they are nervous about the current budget climate.

Despite the funding uncertainty, Heastie can at least breathe a sigh of relief that he will not have to battle again this year to keep a different ally — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in charge of the city schools. For the first time, de Blasio secured a two-year extension of mayoral control last year, giving him and his backers a break from a fight that consumed the last three sessions.

Instead, charter-school policy could once again flare up. Last year, a dispute over charter funding helped push the budget well past its deadline. This year, Heastie said, he is not yet aware of any new charter-related bills heading into the new legislative session, which begins in January.

Meanwhile, he and the union are mulling changes they’d like to see to teacher evaluations.

In 2015, after fierce resistance by the unions, the state tied teacher ratings much more closely to state test scores. The move helped spark a statewide boycott of the tests, leading the Board of Regents to pass a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

However, the moratorium is set to sunset in 2019, which will likely eventually force lawmakers to change the law. Heastie did not say that he will push for a repeal this year, but did say it is time to “start the dialogue” about how to improve evaluations.

“I don’t know if we can get to a final idea,” he said. “But I think the earliest we could give schools and school districts around the state [notice] that there will be a different way to look at our student progress, I think the better.”

Dividing the dollars

Millions of extra dollars go to Indianapolis magnet schools that have fewer poor students

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
School 91 is one of several IPS choice programs that are getting extra money from the district.

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders recently overhauled school budgets in a bid to give more money to schools with poor students. At the same time, they quietly sent more than $6.5 million extra to 17 schools — including the district’s most affluent campuses.

That money went to special programs that often attract middle-class families in the form of about $700 extra on average per student, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. That’s substantially more than the $500 bonus the district gives to schools for each student in poverty.

Those dollars are significant in a district strapped for cash: Spread out evenly, the $6.5 million could send all schools about $250 more per student.

The bonuses also highlight a challenge district leaders often face when trying to make school funding fairer: not alienating families at schools that have long received different resources — and who might otherwise choose private schools or the suburbs.

Critics say the bonuses could work against the district’s goal of directing more resources to schools that need the most help.

“If you put more money into higher-achieving schools, your budget strategy, whether you will say it out loud or not, is to expand the achievement gap,” said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University professor who studies school finance.

District leaders defend the extra money as essential for special programs — which have focus areas such as Montessori, the arts, or career and technical education — because they cost more to run and would be harmed if they lost funding.

“We did not want to adversely impact the operations of those programs,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said.

But giving schools funding based on their programs is one thing that IPS’s new budget system was supposed to prevent. Until this year, the district awarded funds to schools based on an assortment of reasons, including the programs schools offer. In theory, the new student-based budgeting process, on the other hand, is supposed to funnel money to schools based on the needs of individual students.

Read: IPS’ new budget plan is supposed to give more money to poor schools. Here’s how it works.

The district designed some extra money to be temporary under the new budget plan so that schools wouldn’t experience a sudden drop in funding. But officials have not said whether the bonuses to special programs will lessen or disappear over time.

The 17 schools receiving extra money run the gamut. Their demographics vary, and some of the schools are low-performing. But on average, the passing rates on state tests are significantly higher than district averages, while the average poverty rate is far lower — 58 percent versus 78 percent. The amount of money they receive also varies widely.

(Click here to see Chalkbeat’s full analysis, which combined choice programs that do not receive extra money with the district’s other campuses. The projected poverty rate provided by the district does not include students in prekindergarten or self-contained special education classrooms, though those students are included in the total enrollment.)

Unlike neighborhood schools, families choose them, and the vast majority accept students by lottery.

Ferebee said he does not see spending more on choice programs as taking money away from other schools. He noted that the district also gives extra money to schools that have historically struggled. Several schools in a district-led turnaround effort called a transformation zone, for example, also get extra funding.

Plus, all families in the district have access to choice programs, he added.

“I would be more concerned if we didn’t open those programs up to all students, and didn’t provide transportation to all students,” Ferebee said. “But we do.”

The district has also worked to make sure less affluent families have access to choice programs. Last fall, the IPS board reduced the number of families who get priority because they live near a school and reserved seats for families who apply later in the year because data showed low-income families were more likely to apply late.

But for now, many of the schools that get extra money for choice programs are far more likely to educate middle-class students.

That’s likely a reflection of a key challenge for IPS and other urban districts. In states like Indiana, where schools get more money for each student they enroll, winning over parents is essential to staying financially viable. But the kind of programming — such as Montessori and International Baccalaureate schools — that can attract families who might choose private schools or move to the suburbs can be expensive because it often requires extra staff or training.

Carrie Stewart, cofounder of Afton Partners, which consults with districts on financial strategies. She said it is common for districts to give extra funding to schools with special programs.

Schools that offer the IB program, for example, must meet strict staffing and training requirements. “It’s very hard to run them at the same price tag as a typical school,” she said, which means they need more funding.

“Is that fair? I mean, I don’t know,” she added. But if the district doesn’t offer the programs at all, it could lose families to private schools, Stewart said. “Then everybody loses because the district will lose money.”