state budget 2013

Democrats divided over push to restore NYC schools funding

Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan and other lawmakers speak in support of restoring funds to New York City at a press conference in the state capitol.

Democrats in the Senate are split along new political fault lines over a push to restore state schools funds to New York City.

Three city senators from a breakaway group of Democrats, formed as part of a power-sharing deal with Republicans, said this week that they would not join with party colleagues during upcoming budget negotiations in calling for increased aid for the city’s schools.

The state is planning to take back $260 million from the city after the city and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on evaluations before Jan. 17, a deadline mandated by law. The loss of funds would result in cuts to the school system’s central offices, extracurricular programs, and school staff.

The legislature passed the law last year, at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s urging, to incentivize local school districts to come to agreements over contentious teacher evaluation plans.

Many of the same lawmakers who supported Cuomo’s carrot-and-stick approach say they now made a mistake and want to reverse course. The law was meant to be more of a threat, some said Wednesday, and they never expected it to go this far.

“I never say I have all the answers,” said Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who chairs the education committee. “I voted for that because I accepted what the other people all said, but I think now it was a mistake.”

Nolan and her Democratic colleagues in the Assembly, most of whom come from New York City, said they are prepared to dig in their heels as budget negotiations get underway. Speaker Sheldon Silver told teachers and parents, in Albany for the United Federation of Teachers Lobby Day on Wednesday, that he would restore the $260 million in the Assembly’s budget proposal, which will be introduced today.

But Senate Democrats, who are less concentrated in New York City, are more divided, and it’s unlikely they’ll take up the fight as vigorously as the Assembly plans to.

Westchester’s Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who heads the Senate Democratic Conference, said Wednesday she still hopes to see the funds restored.

“The children shouldn’t have to suffer because the adults couldn’t agree,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But senators from the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, which joined forces with Republicans to run the Senate last year, said they do not.

“Unfortunately, the law is the law,” said Jeff Klein, a Bronx senator who heads the Independent Democratic Conference. Klein said he instead supported Cuomo’s legislation to allow state Education Commissioner John King to decide the evaluation system if New York City can’t come to an agreement for next year. “I think restoration of the money is going to be very, very difficult, because it was mandated in law. It was very clear.”

Two other members of Klein’s group, Diane Savino, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, and Malcolm Smith, of Queens, said the loss in funding was a consequence of the both sides’ inability to negotiate a deal.

The lack of support from the Independent Democratic Conference is significant. Of 63 senators, 31 are caucusing with Republicans and 27 are with the Democrats. The five independents are a perpetual swing vote, but they have so far sided with Democrats.

Savino said she was less eager to support the funding because the central players were not lobbying heavily for it.

“Neither the city or the UFT are asking for it,” Savino said. “The UFT was up here today and they weren’t asking for it.”

Others have been more aggressive. It’s a top legislative priority for the advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, and three of the four Democratic candidates for mayor said they supported AQE’s campaign.

“There is no good excuse for the state to make these cuts,” said Billy Easton, AQE’s executive director. “The Independent Democrats would appear to have leverage on this issue. I would hope they would use it.”

Without the support of the Independent Democratic Conference, the likelihood that legislative action could restore funding grows dimmer. The cuts could still be averted in court: Right now, they are on hold while a judge rules if they’re legal.

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

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