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.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”