education mayor

3 things we know about Thompson's schools view; more we don't

Comptroller Bill Thompson. (Via Azi's Flickr)
Comptroller Bill Thompson. (Via ##http://flickr.com/photos/azipaybarah/2376506857/##Azi's Flickr##.)

My former colleague Jacob Gershman is very good at raising subjects everyone is talking about but nobody says in print. He did so with today’s piece on Comptroller William Thompson Jr., who is making school issues a big part of his mayoral campaign — without clarifying his positions on some of the main school issues of the day.

Gershman argues Thompson possesses a “carefully cultivated irrelevance.” But there is stuff we do know about where Thompson stands on education issues, though much of the facts raise more questions than they answer.

First, we know that he’s said he favors retaining control of the school system if he becomes mayor. It’s unclear exactly how much control he’d like to give himself (a big empty space, as we pointed out), but he’s said repeatedly that he supports the mayor having primary authority. “I may be in a shrinking group of those who support it,” he told a committee in testimony that was supposed to be off the record but which I obtained when I was at the New York Sun.

We also know the two main points of attack Thompson has selected for criticizing Bloomberg’s school efforts: He criticizes the mayor on transparency, which he says is so poor that even his office struggles to understand the school system’s finances, and parental involvement. Both of these are safe issues; they’re exactly the points conceded by one of the most prominent mayoral allies on schools, Geoffrey Canada, and they avoid the nastier battlegrounds of school closings, accountability, and charter schools.

And like mayoral control, the parental involvement point raises more questions than it answers. What would Thompson do to give parents more say? Would he suggest that parents sit on a central board of education? Would he favor making positions on a central board directly elected by all city voters? Would he favor a return to community school boards? The latter is probably out of bounds, but what is in bounds — what Thompson would actually support — is not clear to me.

Finally, we know that the quietness of Thompson’s service as Board of Education president did not distinguish him much from others who held the job. According to David Bloomfield, the Brooklyn College professor who served as general counsel to the Board, most Board of Ed presidents kept low profiles. Bloomfield argues that was probably for the best for Thompson. “After a particularly volatile period under [chancellors Joseph] Fernandez and [Ray] Cortines, when there was a great deal of strife between the board and the chancellor, that might have been the best policy,” Bloomfield said.

James Vlasto, a consultant who worked at New Visions for Public Schools while Thompson was at the Board of Education, and who before that served as an adviser to Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, said that the job of board president mainly required work conducted outside the public eye. “His job was to be the mediator between the other members of the board and the mayor. And he did fairly well,” Vlasto said. “He is not going to come up with curriculum changes or how to run the buses, how to feed the kids, tell the teachers how to teach. That’s not his job. That’s the chancellor’s.”

Of course, now that Thompson is running for mayor, tackling those questions is his job. We’d obviously be happy to interview the comptroller about his detailed education plans. Stay tuned.

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