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:

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.

School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.