Budget backlash

Proposed closures of nine Memphis schools draw protests

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Student Jociana Gilkey speaks in behalf of Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, a Memphis charter school proposed for closure by administrators for Shelby County Schools.

Eighth-grader Jociana Gilkey says the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering is like “my family” — and she doesn’t like that Shelby County Schools is considering breaking up her family.

“The moment I heard that I might lose my school, I got so upset,” said Jociana, who likes the small class sizes and supportive faculty and environment at the charter school, where her favorite subjects are math and English.

“Our teachers are not slackers. They help me with everything, every step of the way,” said Jociana, 14, whose younger sister also attends the academy.

Jociana spoke up Thursday night at a public hearing to protest the proposed closures of nine schools, including hers. About 300 parents, students and teachers filled the auditorium, where four of the district’s nine school board members were in attendance.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is recommending the closures to help close a projected $86 million budget gap next school year. Six schools on the chopping block are charters authorized by the district, and all nine schools are either under-enrolled or low-performing academically.

The recommendation to shutter more schools came on Tuesday after floating the idea as a trial balloon last week to school board members. Hopson said the closures would save between $6 million and $8 million and would prevent cuts that his administration proposed last month to two popular programs with built-in constituencies: CLUE, the district’s program for gifted students, and the Innovation Zone, its school turnaround program, as well as the jobs of 15 guidance counselors. As expected, supporters of those programs, particularly CLUE, turned out in force at budget meetings to challenge district leaders for cutting a program that works.

“WIth an $86 million gap to fill, we are forced to consider everything, as difficult as it may be,” school board chairwoman Teresa Jones told the crowd Thursday night.

In addition to Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, the proposed charter closures include KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle School, KIPP Collegiate High School, Omni Prep Academy-North Point lower and middle schools, and Southern Avenue Middle School.

The three district-operated schools recommended for closure are Northside and Carver high schools and Messick Adult Center. A 10th school, Dunbar Elementary, was taken off the list because the district can’t guarantee students wouldn’t have to change schools again after next year, Hopson said.

The school board already has approved closing two other charter schools at the close of this school year.

"If you take away their school, then what are they going to do?"Shelfina Wilkins, parent

School closures have become an annual exercise in Shelby County Schools, which has struggled with shrinking enrollment and declining funding due mainly to the growth of the state-run Achievement School District and the creation in 2014 of six school systems by suburban municipalities. The district now has about 110,000 students, down from 150,000 in 2013 when the county and city systems merged. Leaders expect another enrollment decline next school year of about 1 to 2 percent, as the district loses another four low-performing schools to the state turnaround district.

Those statistics don’t mean a lot to Shelfina Wilkins, who showed up Thursday night to fight for KIPP Collegiate High School, where her two sons attend.

“Me as a mom, I’m frightened,” said Wilkins. “It doesn’t make any sense to close a school that’s doing so much for their students.”

Wilkins said her ninth-grade son, who was considered special needs by Shelby County Schools, is receiving individualized care at KIPP. Her eleventh-grader has reached a healthier weight because of participating in a KIPP dance program.

“If you take away their school, then what are they going to do?” she asked, fighting back tears. “Where else could they possibly go that will take care of them this much?”

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscious I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”