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?”

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.