Budget cuts

State has shifted school funding gap to local districts, say Memphis leaders

Board of Education member Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson present the district's funding request to the Shelby County Commission.

State officials have hoisted the financial responsibility for educating Tennessee’s children on the backs of local districts, say Shelby County School leaders who are seeking more local funding to bridge the gap.

“If you want to get off the hot seat, you should go to the state and tell them to give us our due amount,” Board of Education member Chris Caldwell told the Shelby County Commission Wednesday during a presentation in Memphis.

Administrators for Tennessee’s largest public school system asked commissioners for $15 million on top of the $301 million that the commission already is obligated to allocate to the district next school year. The request comes two weeks after district’s board approved a $974 million budget for the 2015-16 school year that includes $125 million in cuts because of a drop in student enrollment, a mushrooming pension obligation and a decrease in local and state sales tax revenue.

Local officials estimate that the district would receive an additional $100 million if the state fully funded Shelby County Schools through Tennessee’s Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools.

However, commissioners expressed reluctance to enable a flawed funding system.

“What incentive does the state have to fully fund the BEP if we keep picking up their slack?” asked Commissioner David Reaves. “We need to create a climate where there’s a burning need [for the state to fulfill its obligation].”

Seven school systems in southeast Tennessee, including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, sued the state in March over funding, arguing that the state has breached its constitutional duty to provide “a system of free public education” for Tennessee’s children. Among other things, the suit contends that the state underestimates the cost of teacher salaries by more than $500 million statewide.

Shelby County Schools, along with districts in Nashville and Knoxville, are considering filing lawsuits as well, while the state has asked the court to dismiss the existing suit.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam met earlier this year with the superintendents of Tennessee’s four largest districts and committed to work with them to address the issue. Following his proposed budget, the legislature last month approved a $170 million boost in K-12 spending, mostly for teacher pay raises, but district leaders say state education funding remains woefully inadequate.

The $15 million increase requested of the commission would represent a 1 percent hike in local funding for Shelby County Schools.

School administrators told commissioners that they are not alone. District leaders in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville have asked their local funding bodies for more money as well, with Chattanooga’s Hamilton County seeking the biggest hike of 10 percent.

The Shelby County Commission spent almost a third of its total revenue and 60 percent of its collected property tax revenue — about $381 million — on education this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Another 12 percent went toward capital debt accrued through new school construction in the suburbs during the 1990s.

This school year, the commission has provided the district with $2,800 per student, up 30 percent from 2005. About a quarter of the district’s funding comes from the county.

District leaders complained that, in addition to underfunding Shelby County Schools, the state is siphoning off money from the local district by allowing the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) to take control of numerous Memphis schools as part of the state’s school turnaround plan. District administrators estimate that the ASD’s intervention will result in a loss of $18 million next year to Shelby County Schools.

“The state ought to quit committing money to the ASD and instead give it to the people who know these families the most,” Caldwell told commissioners.

ASD officials have said the takeovers have been necessary to interject new ideas, energy and even competition into an educational system that had been stagnant for too long. They have praised Shelby County’s own school turnaround initiative through its Innovation Zone.

How the requested increase for Shelby County Schools (at left) compares with requests from other large districts
How the requested increase for Shelby County Schools (at left) compares with requests from other large districts

In a detailed presentation, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district is being prudent with its money and is getting results, including increased test scores, especially at schools that previously have been among the state’s worst-performing schools. To maintain that momentum, Hopson said the district needs an infusion of local cash to give bonuses to its most effective teachers; hire more reading coaches, guidance counselors and social workers; and continue college and career preparation programs, among other needs.

The presentation noted that the district also is working to offset a significant loss of federal and philanthropic grant money beginning next school year.

Commissioners complimented the district for boosting academic performance while making substantive budget cuts. They also spoke of the need for a quality education system to counter significant societal challenges.

“You have an unprecedented challenge as a system with crime, poverty and all the other social ills of an urban community,” Commissioner Walter Bailey said.

The full commission is expected to vote on the county’s budget May 20.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede