New fiscal year

Hopson: Memphis schools have most stable budget in years, but it’s still not enough

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students at Snowden School in Memphis.

Shelby County Schools officials are riding high, fueled by a dramatic swing from operating in the red to landing solidly in the black in the new fiscal year that begins Saturday.

But they say the district still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success.

Last year, the school system faced down $50 million in proposed cuts, although not all went through. This year, officials have more than $50 million in new funding to pour into their priorities — which include restoring counseling cuts, growing a slimmed-down turnaround initiative, and raising pay for most teachers.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a process,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told Chalkbeat on Friday as another fiscal year ended. “You have to cut and reassess. And as you emerge, you’re able to be more strategic in how you spend your dollars.”

Four main factors contributed to the sunnier financial picture, Hopson said. Enrollment shrunk by less than expected, the county offered a funding boost, bus service was streamlined, and the district closed more than 20 schools in recent years.

Officials say the new spending — which brings the district’s budget to nearly $1 billion — has kicked off a positive cycle that should strengthen the district’s budget picture even more in the future.

“We are making smarter decisions using data … more than we ever have before and that has allowed us to invest back into high-quality learning,” Lin Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told county commissioners last week. “As we improve academics, enrollment is stabilizing.”

Still, officials say, the district is only making the most of too little in state funding.

Shelby County is one of several districts suing the state over its school funding formula. The school board also joined an unlikely coalition of education leaders who often disagree on how to fix schools to ask city government to voluntarily contribute $10 million to Memphis schools.

And there remain many positions that have never been restored after the tumultuous period in which the city and county districts merged, then split apart as six municipal districts seceded, said Susanne Jackson, a retired educator and former teacher union representative.

“I think some officials and people in the public may believe these are additions — and they don’t realize how deep the cuts have gone and what had been removed, impacting students academics and discipline issues,” Jackson said. “The inequities that still exist, considering what families have in income and assets in Shelby County Schools versus municipals, are still staggering.”

And with private school vouchers still a possibility in Tennessee, Hopson said the district’s newfound financial stability could be threatened.

“There’s always these unknowns,” Hopson said. “What happens if the voucher bill passes and we lose a bunch of students?”

The county commission, the local funding source, approved the school system’s budget Monday but delayed signing off on the county’s full budget until July 10, after the fiscal year has started. The slight delay won’t affect Shelby County Schools’ spending plan, county and district leaders said.

taking action

Denver to dismiss students early as teachers rally for more school funding

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Colorado educators rallied outside the State Capitol on April 16, 2018. More rallies are planned for next week. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The Denver school district will cut short the school day on April 27 after the local teachers union announced its members would join an afternoon rally at the Colorado Capitol to advocate for more state education funding.

District-run schools will have an “early-release” day with students being dismissed sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Denver Public Schools spokeswoman Jessie Smiley said. Exact dismissal times will depend on a school’s transportation schedule, she said.

Innovation schools, which are district-run schools with additional autonomy, can opt out of the early dismissal and operate on a normal schedule, according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg that explains why the district is declaring an early-release day. Denver Public Schools is the largest school district in the state, with 92,600 students.

Several charter schools also plan to dismiss students early so teachers can participate in the rally. They include schools in the district’s two biggest homegrown charter networks, DSST and STRIVE Prep, according to officials from those networks.

Other Colorado school districts have canceled school for a whole day. Colorado has among the lowest level of school funding in the country, and a recent study ranked the state last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Read Boasberg’s letter in full below.

Dear DPS Community,

As we have been communicating with you, DPS has been working extraordinarily hard and in partnership with superintendents across the state to press our state government to restore education funding to our schools, and ensure our students and our educators receive the supports and compensation they deserve.

In Colorado, the state funds education at an average of $2,500 per student less than the national average. That is short-sighted and wrong. Our state needs to dramatically increase our investment in education, and all of our voices play a vital role in this effort.

The statewide teachers association, the Colorado Education Association, is planning a statewide rally of educators on Friday, April 27 to advocate for greater state funding and expects that many of our teachers will participate. As such, we’ve been working with our teachers on a plan that will have as minimal impact as possible on our students and families

Given the number of teachers expected to participate in CEA’s event that afternoon, we have decided to schedule an early release day for all district-managed schools on Friday, April 27. Innovation schools can opt out of the early release schedule and decide to operate on a normal schedule. We felt it was important to get a decision on this as early as possible so schools and families can plan ahead.

The planned early release will not impact student meals. We are committed to feeding every child every day, so bagged lunches will be available for every student on April 27.

Also, the planned early release day will not impact the 34th Annual Shakespeare Festival. The festival will follow its regular schedule. Transportation will be provided to students who go back to school after the celebration.

We are working with Transportation Services to provide accurate information about transportation for Friday, April 27. We will share this information as soon as it’s available.

We are communicating with school leaders and families to provide you with answers to your questions about your school’s schedule, transportation, and after-school activities. Please look for a detailed communication from your student’s principal by the end of the day Thursday, April 19.

As in every case, our students’ safety is our top priority, and we will make necessary revisions to these plans to prioritize their well-being. Thank you for your support of our educators and your partnership in our students’ education.

Best,
Tom

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

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)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.