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:

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: