on the table

Germantown offers much more to buy three Shelby County schools — this time in person

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo (center) answers questions from reporters about a $25 million offer to buy three schools from Shelby County Schools.

In the latest volley in a three-year turf war, a Memphis suburb would spend at least $25 million to buy three schools from a district it chose to leave.

That’s the latest offer on the table from Germantown Municipal School District, according to a letter to Shelby County Schools, dated May 2. It follows a $5 million bid to buy two of the schools last year that barely elicited a response from Shelby County Schools officials.

This time, Shelby County Schools is paying attention: Leaders from both districts sat down together for the first time Tuesday afternoon to discuss the potential sale of Germantown elementary, middle and high schools, which are within Germantown city limits, but under Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County Schools officials said its school board is expected to discuss the offer at an upcoming public meeting but did not offer feedback on the meeting from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson or board chairman Chris Caldwell. However, the in-person meeting symbolizes an openness not seen before from district leaders in transferring the schools.

Germantown was one of six municipal school districts to split from Shelby County Schools in 2014, one year after a historic merger between the mostly white suburban district and the mostly black city school district. In the transition, Shelby County Schools held on to the schools, colloquially known as “the three G’s” or “heritage schools.”

Both districts have good reason to want the schools — and Shelby County Schools may have a couple of reasons to want to part with them.

All of them are part of Shelby County Schools’ optional schools program, where students must test into the high-performing schools to attend. Optional schools in the district are a major attraction for middle-class families for the urban district that has seen declining enrollment as families move into the suburbs.

Though the district is downsizing as enrollment drops and maintenance costs rise, the three Germantown schools are all near or over capacity. Still, the district needs to shed about 20,000 empty seats over the next several years and the high school has $9.6 million in building projects, according to 2016 estimates. The Germantown offer represents a rare opportunity to gain revenue as the district sheds buildings.

For Germantown, it’s a matter of capacity — and pride. Its elementary schools are bursting at the seams and Superintendent Jason Manuel said the district anticipates the same for its middle schools. Ever since Germantown voters chose to split off from the merged district, residents, leaders and politicians of the generally wealthy suburb have said they would fight to get back “our schools.” School board members in Germantown even campaigned on the promise to get “the three G’s” from the merged school system.

Germantown leaders voted last month to build a new elementary school after Hopson showed little interest in selling the elementary and middle schools for $5 million in June. However, if Shelby County Schools changes course to sell one or more of the schools, Germantown leaders would abandon plans for new construction.

The municipal district is asking for a response from Shelby County Schools by May 22, but Manuel said that timeframe was negotiable. The next Shelby County Schools board meeting is May 30, and it is unlikely the county district would be able to give Germantown an answer before then.

Under the proposal, the transfer would begin in September and the elementary, middle and high school would open under Germantown Municipal School District in 2019, 2021 and 2023 respectively. The offer is also the first to include purchasing the high school.

“We used bolded words that say we’re open to a counter offer,” Manuel said about the offer letter. “The amount of money, the transition plan, all of those things are negotiable. We wanted to just get to the table with them.”

To read the Germantown letter in full, see below:

money talks

As battle over education funding divides Democrats, New York City mayor adds $125M to city’s schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

New York City schools are about to get a $125 million boost, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday.

The new money means that all city schools will soon receive at least 90 percent of the money they are supposed to get under the city’s funding formula. The change will allow 854 schools to spend more on things like literacy specialists, tutoring, supplies, and technology, de Blasio said.

Despite the extra cash, many schools will still not reach the level the city considers fully funded. Principals have said in the past that until the city reaches its goal, the neediest schools will struggle to afford crucial services, such as additional academic programs or after-school classes.

“We are fighting against a problem that, bluntly, has been here for decades, even generations,” de Blasio said, flanked by City Council leaders and advocates at City Hall. “But in this generation, we’re going to fix the problem.”

De Blasio’s announcement — the first to include new Chancellor Richard Carranza — reflects the mayor’s vow to pour more resources into education. It also injects the mayor into one of the most divisive issues in New York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary: whether the state is adequately funding schools. De Blasio’s ally, Cynthia Nixon, is pushing for more money, while his adversary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, argues that the state is helping schools enough.

The city adopted its funding formula, or “Fair Student Funding,” in 2007 as a way to send more money to high-needs schools. Instead of divvying up money based on teacher salaries, the new formula gave schools extra money based on their students’ needs: Students who are poor, struggling academically, have a disability, or just learning English bring their schools additional dollars. The formula also provides extra money to some selective schools in the city on the grounds that their students might require additional resources as well.

But the funding formula has run into a crucial problem: City officials never allocated the total amount of money that they planned to a decade ago. The city blames the state for failing to fully fund schools according to the terms of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that was settled in 2006. Advocates — including Nixon — have sustained attention to the settlement’s requirements for more than a decade.

At a press conference, de Blasio repeatedly blasted state officials for not fully funding schools under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and took a swipe at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s suggestion that school budgeting needs more transparency as opposed to more money.

“The city puts more and more in education and the state puts less and less in,” de Blasio said. “Of course you need more money to educate better.”

Advocates for additional school funding quickly heralded the city’s news — and criticized Cuomo.

“Unlike Governor Cuomo who has consistently blocked Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding, the mayor understands that money matters when it comes to addressing inequity in schools,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which formed to advance the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Nixon is a longtime spokesperson for the group.

Carranza said he plans to continue lobbying Cuomo to increase funding for city schools. “While New York City is not waiting, we cannot do it alone,” he said. “And I look forward to being in Albany next week where I will meet with our state elected officials and I will make that case directly.”

Though schools still lag behind their funding goal, de Blasio has added more money to the system since taking office. At the beginning of his term, schools could see as little as 81 percent of what the funding formula said they should receive. That number has risen to 87 percent since 2014 and will now jump to 90 percent.

School funding in the city has remained uneven. For instance, New Design High School, which serves many needy students, got only 92 percent of what the funding formula said it should receive last year. The High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, which enrolls a less needy population, got 112 percent of what the funding formula prescribed.

Asked about whether the city would reduce these types of inequities, de Blasio said the city did not plan to reduce school funding to promote equity.

“We have not said let’s take schools that are doing a good job and take resources away from them,” de Blasio said. “We’re in striking range — just a few years away from achieving full equity where every school is at 100 percent.”

Some schools have found other ways to supplement their funding levels. Parents in wealthier neighborhoods often raise funds to help their schools. Also, de Blasio has already committed to fully funding some of the city’s struggling schools, those in his flagship “Renewal” program. But for the rest of the city’s schools, the extra money could be crucial.

Christina Veiga contributed to this report

strike that

This Colorado bill would ban teacher strikes and hit violators with fines and jail time

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Two Republican lawmakers who have long helped shape education policy in Colorado have introduced a bill that would bar teachers from striking and strip unions that endorse strikes of their bargaining power.

This bill stands practically no chance of becoming law. House Democrats already killed a bill this legislative session that would have prohibited any union activity by public employees during work hours, and this measure goes much further in limiting the rights of workers.

However, that it was introduced at all speaks to growing concern that the wave of teacher activism that has hit other states could come to Colorado. Last Monday, several hundred teachers marched at the state Capitol for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more, are expected for more marches this Thursday and Friday.

Earlier this year, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association threatened to strike before backing off and continuing negotiations over that district’s pay-for-performance system. And Pueblo teachers voted to strike this month after the school board there voted down pay raises.

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According to numerous reports, Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of U.S. states for both education funding and teacher salaries, though there is considerable variation around the state.

The reaction at the Capitol to teacher activism has fallen largely on party lines, with House Democrats joining teachers in calling for more school funding, and Republicans expressing frustration because this year’s budget already includes an increase for K-12 education. Republicans want to secure more funding for transportation projects, and lawmakers are also arguing over the final form of a proposed overhaul to the public employees retirement system.

The bill sponsored by state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and state Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument would prohibit teachers and teachers unions from “directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating” in a strike. It also would prohibit public school employers from “consenting to or condoning” a teacher strike.

The bill authorizes public school employers to go to court and get an injunction against a teacher strike.

Teachers who violate such an injunction could be fined up to $500 a day and be jailed for up to six months. They would also face immediate termination with no right to a hearing.

Local teachers unions found in contempt could face fines of up to $10,000 a day. More significantly, they would see their collective bargaining agreements rendered null and void and would be barred from representing teachers for a year or collecting dues during that time. School districts would be barred from negotiating with sanctioned unions as well.

Courts would have the ability to reduce these penalties if employers request it or if they feel it is in the public interest to do so.

Teacher strikes are rare in Colorado and already face certain restrictions. For example, the Pueblo union has informed state regulators of their intent to strike, and the state Department of Labor and Employment can intervene to try to broker an agreement. Those discussions can go on for as long as 180 days before teachers can walk off the job.

The last time Denver teachers went on strike was 1994. A state judge refused to order teachers back to work because they had gone through the required process with state regulators. Teachers had the right, he ruled, to reject the proposed contract. That strike lasted a week before teachers returned to work with a new contract.