good news/bad news

In shift from recent past, city's budget plan boosts school funds

Bloomberg discusses school funding during today's budget briefing

The education proposals that Mayor Bloomberg announced during his State of the City speech last week made no appearance at his budget briefing today.

Nor did the policy he had pushed last year during the budget process, an end to seniority-based layoff rules.

In fact, in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins in July, Bloomberg said little about schools except that the Department of Education is among the only city agencies not set to experience budget cuts. The city is planning to spend $13.6 billion on schools in 2012-2013, and layoffs are not on the table.

That’s good news for principals, who said last year (as they had in the past) that they could not fathom cutting anything more in their schools.

But the budget proposal counts on some revenue that is not at all assured — increased school aid from the state.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, of course, has said the aid increase would go only to districts that have new teacher evaluations in place. So far, the city and teachers union have been unable to agree on new evaluations and do not appear on the brink of doing so.

But Bloomberg said today he was not worried about Cuomo’s threat, arguing that the aid increases were slated well before Cuomo’s recent ultimatum.

“In terms of the governor’s budget I think this coming year’s education money is locked in and not contingent on anything,” Bloomberg said.

Some cuts are slated to day care programs: About 16,000 spots will disappear under the proposed budget, a fact that has drawn swift and vocal criticism from advocates of early childhood education.

“We just can’t do everything,” Bloomberg said today.

The main constraint, and the emphasis of his budget presentation, is that the city’s pension burden is “a ticking time bomb,” he said. For the first time, the pensions and benefits to be paid out to uniformed workers (firefighters, police, sanitation, etc.) this year will exceed what the city spends on their wages, Bloomberg said.

He applauded Cuomo for proposing pension reform that would change the benefits calculation for new works.

Asked whether reducing the promised pension returns for future workers might undermine the city’s bid to get top college graduates into classrooms as teachers, a goal he outlined in his State of the City speech, Bloomberg said he didn’t anticipate a problem.

“I don’t think new teachers getting out of school are concerned about pensions,” he said. “They’re more concerned with changing the world.”

Bloomberg did say, during the question-and-answer portion of the budget briefing, that he is optimistic that the city will be able to negotiate with the teachers union for incentive pay, in the form of college loan forgiveness, to go to high-achieving college students who become city teachers. But he did not mention that plan, or the funds that would underwrite it, during his budget presentation.

One reason for the city’s additional education outlay, Bloomberg explained, is that the city is picking up the slack left by the state and federal government when stimulus funding ran out. Ten years ago, he said, the city and state shared funding for the city schools roughly evenly. But after a decade of increasing spending on schools, the city now covers two-thirds of the bill. Last year, Bloomberg blamed the post-stimulus funding cliffs for the layoffs threat last year.

Last year, the choice was to “either lay off teachers or reach into our pockets,” Bloomberg said today. “We chose to reach into our pockets.”


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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.