Chalkbeat explains

Memphis suburbs are receiving federal money for more poor students than they have. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal
In a 2015 photo, a student says goodbye to her friend as the pair board buses for home at the end of a school day at Bartlett Ninth Grade Academy.

Last school year, the small Lakeland district outside Memphis received about $64,000 in Title I funds to help educate poor students. Next year, it’s expecting nearly $427,000.

The Collierville district, 20 miles away, got about $635,000 last year. Next year? It’s expecting more than $3.1 million, a 490 percent jump.

And Germantown will do best of all. That district expects its Title I funds to increase nearly 850 percent to $2.2 million.

But poverty hasn’t risen precipitously in those places, which split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to form smaller districts and which have far fewer poor families. A quirk in the rules for allocating those federal funds will give all but Millington a big budget boost next year.

Combined, the five municipalities will receive an extra $7.1 million.

Meanwhile, in what could be described as a cruel irony, Shelby County Schools is set to receive $5 million less in Title I funds than it did last year — in part because of the secession of those six districts.

The changes have flabbergasted local educators.

“Something’s wrong with that equation,” said Deborah Atkins, who lives in Bartlett and teaches in Shelby County Schools. “I know we have (poor) students in the municipalities, but it’s not equitable.”

Those slated to benefit from the extra cash aren’t sure what it all means, either.

“I was surprised,” said Tammy Mason, superintendent of Arlington Community Schools, another one of the municipalities. Arlington is set to receive an extra $897,000. “We don’t have a plan yet.”

The funding shifts are another significant consequence of the tumultuous merger and subsequent de-merger of Memphis’s urban and suburban school districts. They also reveal how the labyrinthine method of allocating Title I money can perpetuate significant inequities.

Chalkbeat asked local, state and federal officials to explain the changes. Here’s what they told us.

Why is Shelby County Schools losing Title I money?

Last year, Shelby County Schools received $65 million in Title I funds. Next year, that number is expected to drop by 8 percent, or $5 million. There are three key reasons why, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

PHOTO: Katie Kull
The Foote Homes housing project, which is scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, has been home to thousands of Memphis families since it was built in the 1940s to serve as low-income housing for African-American families.

One: Shelby County Schools has a smaller share of the nation’s poor.

Title I funding is allocated based on each district and state’s portion of the total number of poor students in the U.S. That means that when poverty in one school district increases faster than in others, it shifts money away from those other districts even if their poverty levels haven’t changed.

And the share of those students living within the boundaries of Shelby County Schools has dropped, from 0.51 percent to 0.42 percent.

Two: The district is now smaller in the eyes of the federal government.

This year was the “first to reflect to creation of the new municipal school districts, which meant that the boundaries for Shelby used in the Census estimates were smaller than those used in the prior year,” according to the U.S. Title I program office.

Three: The new federal education law allows the state to withhold more Title I money from districts.

That money, taken from all Tennessee districts, will be redistributed by the state for school improvement efforts. Since most of the state’s lowest-performing schools are in Memphis, the district can expect to get a good chunk of that back.

Why are those five breakaway districts gaining $7 million?

This year will be the first year the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the six municipal districts in its funding calculations — nearly three years after the smaller districts formed.

That’s because the federal government only updates its list of school districts and boundaries every two years, and calculations about poverty lag another year behind that.

In the meantime, Title I funding for Shelby County Schools and the six municipalities was given to the Tennessee Department of Education as a bulk sum. The state then divided it among the seven school districts based on the percentage of poor students enrolled in food or income assistance programs and a few other criteria.

Now that the federal government recognizes the six municipal districts, a new process has kicked in to establish Title I funding levels.

In the first year of that process, each municipality inherits the student poverty level of the district it broke off from — in this case, Shelby County Schools. This is true even if poverty rates between the districts are drastically different.

State education officials called that policy “counterintuitive” and urged federal officials to reconsider. But the state ultimately accepted the extra funds when federal officials informed them that the money would go to other states if they declined.

Note: Shelby County Schools includes some unicorporated areas outside Memphis city limits
Source: Tennessee Department of Education (2015-16) and American Community Survey (2015)

Over the next three years, the Title I funds sent to the municipalities will gradually decrease to match their own poverty rates.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Why is one district losing a bit of Title I funding?

Not all of the municipalities are gaining money out of this policy. Millington’s student poverty rate is significantly closer to Shelby County Schools’ rate, so inheriting the larger district’s numbers didn’t change much.

In fact, the district is slated to lose nearly $128,000 this year. Officials say they have planned for that, and will take about $30,000 from Millington’s reserve fund to help make up the difference.

“We believe we’ll be able to carry on with the things we want to do,” superintendent David Roper said.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

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.