on the table

IBO: Charter school rent, ATR reform should be budget options

Slashing parent coordinators, charging rent to charter schools, and limiting time spent in the Absent Teacher Reserve are among the menu items that the city’s budget watchdog said could save the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Independent Budget Office released its annual list of options that it believes city government officials should consider as they head into their final negotiations before adopting a budget for the 2013 fiscal year. The Department of Education, an agency that eats up about one-third of the $67 billion citywide budget, was listed in 10 of the 72 recommendations.

The IBO estimated that the city could raise $53 million in revenue by charging rent to charter schools and save $28 million if it slashed its summer school program.

The ideas reflected policy positions from all corners of the ideological map. Some of the proposals can also be found on a list of contract demands the city made in 2010. But others are straight from the teachers union’s wishlist.

“Mostly bad ideas,” a spokesman for the union, Dick Riley, wrote in an email, referring specifically to the summer school cuts. “And a few promising ones – like charging rent to charter operators.”

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center, disagreed.

“Charter schools are public schools, so asking them to pay rent is like asking the fire department to pay for their firehouses or the NYPD to pay for their precincts,” Merriman said in a statement.

Others options on the table are to eliminate all parent coordinators – and save $70 million – and end a $32.6 million teacher coach program.

The proposal to charge charter schools rent has emerged as a contentious issue in the last year. Last February, the IBO estimated that charter school students in public school buildings received about $700 more than their DOE counterparts, largely because the schools don’t have to budget for rent and other building-related costs. This summer, education advocates filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education for not collecting an estimated $100 million for these costs.

One item that Riley declined to comment on was a proposal to cap the number of years that excessed teachers should be allowed to collect salary as part the Absent Teacher Reserve . That proposal would save the city $53 million annually.

The issue has been buoyed by the Department of Education and The New Teacher Project in the past, but it has not gotten as much attention during budget talks in recent years. Last year’s budget negotiations to save thousands of teaching positions yielded an ATR deal that required excessed teachers to replace substitute teachers by filling short- and long-term vacancies.

Previously, the IBO has generally left education cuts alone when it publishes the report, but it has bulked up its education division after legislators named it a data watchdog for the Department of Education in 2009.

This year’s report reflects the closer scrutiny. Seven of the 15 budget options added to the 2012 version were education-related. There’s even a proposal “encourage” teachers to complete jury duty in the summer months so they don’t have to miss as much time ($2.4 millionin estimated savings) and one to eliminate a “Banking Time” mandate that gives DOE central staff 20 minutes every two weeks to cash in their checks at  a nearby bank ($1 million).

IBO officials said the point of the report isn’t a popularity contest, but rather a tool to help key budget negotiators during their final round of talks on the adopted budget.

“Budgeting is a series of tradeoffs as the Mayor, City Council Members, and other city officials seek to balance the level of services that can be provided with the revenues that must be raised to fund those services,” said IBO Director Ronnie Lowenstein. “This volume is designed to help city officials and the public consider how some of the tradeoffs can be achieved.”

A full copy of the report is embedded below. Here’s all the education-related cuts and their projected savings (*denotes new option)

  • Eliminate Public Funding of Transportation For Private School Students* ($39 million)
  • Eliminate Elementary and Middle Summer School Program ($28 million)
  • Impose a One-Year Hiatus on the Creation of New Small Schools ($14.4 million)
  • Eliminate City Dollars and Contracts for Excellence Funds for Teacher Coaches ($32.6 million)
  • Eliminate Hiring Exception for New Schools ($12 million)
  • Institute Time Limits for Excessed Teachers In the Absent Teacher Reserve Pool ($50 million)
  • Eliminate the 20-Minute “Banking Time” For Certain Education Department Staff ($1 million)
  • Encourage Classroom Teachers to Serve Jury Duty During Noninstructional Summer Months ($2.4 million)
  • Charge Rent to Charter Schools in Shared Facilities ($53 million)

Options 2012

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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.