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?”

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.”

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”