$$ and schools

Memphis philanthropists, school leaders talk funding strategies at D.C. forum

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Philanthropic and education leaders from 16 cities, including Memphis, attended a forum Oct. 5 in the nation's capital hosted by the DC Public Education Fund.

Memphis school and philanthropic leaders were in the nation’s capital Thursday to hear how a local philanthropic group has raised $120 million for school initiatives in Washington, D.C.

The Memphis contingent joined representatives from 16 other cities at a one-day forum hosted by the DC Public Education Fund on its 10th anniversary. The goal was to learn about how private donors have contributed to a decade of growth in District of Columbia Public Schools, its organizers said.

Memphis has an active philanthropic community seeking to improve the quality of public education through Shelby County Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and the city’s charter schools. Millions of dollars in education grants from national organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation also have flowed into the city. This month, the last of a $90 million Gates grant that launched in 2009 for teacher and leader development will dry up for Shelby County Schools. (The Gates and Walton foundations also support Chalkbeat.)


Here’s how $90 million from Bill Gates spurred sweeping changes in Memphis


In recent years, Memphis philanthropists have sought to become more coordinated in their investments through the Memphis Education Fund, formerly known as Teacher Town. It’s considered a younger peer to the DC Public Education Fund, and both act as an intermediaries between their cities’ school systems and philanthropies. The older D.C. organization works closely with D.C. Public Schools to identify needs and fill them in collaboration with foundations.

The forum’s speakers included D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and two of his predecessors, Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, who brought sweeping reforms to the district from 2007 to 2016.

The forum was meant to “reflect on a decade of transformation and to celebrate DCPS’ progress as the fastest-improving school district in the nation,” said Jessica Rauch, executive director and president of the DC fund. “Other cities are coming to learn from our partnership model and, we hope, will be inspired to implement some parts of our approach in their home cities.”

That means more than just writing checks. The agenda included strategies for supporting innovations in curriculum, celebrating excellent educators, empowering males of color, and partnering with families to accelerate student learning.

The gathering of philanthropic and school leaders took place at the newly modernized Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the nation’s first public high school for black students.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.