City, school district on cusp of lawsuit settlement

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

If the Memphis City Council approves a proposal to settle a six-year-old school funding lawsuit between the city and Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Tuesday he plans to invest the city’s first payment of $6 million in the district’s Innovation Zone.

Hopson encouraged the school board Tuesday night to support the proposed settlement saying “a compromise has been reached, and it’s time to put the lawsuit behind us.”

The board took Hopson’s recommendation almost unanimously, with Chairwoman Teresa Jones abstaining because she works for the city.

Hopson and Memphis Mayor AC Wharton brokered the agreement over several months of conversations, with the final hashing out of a payment plan taking place over this past weekend, Hopson said.

But there’s one final hurdle the proposed lawsuit settlement must clear:  the city council. This could prove difficult since the city has challenged two court rulings that determined it underfunded Memphis City Schools by $57 million in the 2008-09 school year.

The 13-member council met Tuesday, shortly after learning, in a letter from Wharton, about the proposed settlement. The council didn’t take up the lawsuit issue. Its next meeting is Jan. 6. The Commercial Appeal reported discussions on the issue will continue on Jan. 8.

“The tricky thing with this proposal is that it requires everyone to be on board. The school board is on board, I’m on board, and Mayor Wharton is on board. Now it’s up to the city council to see if this proposal moves forward or not,” Hopson said during a post meeting interview with Chalkbeat Tennessee.

The agreement allows the city to pay the debt without raising taxes and provides the district with Memphis Police school resource officers and assumption of an $8 million debt the former Memphis City Schools incurred in 1998.

Under the payment plan, the schools would receive $32.7 million over a 13-year period with the first payment of $6 million due by Feb. 1, 2015. During the first three years, the city would make annual payments of $1.3 million and in fourth year through the 12th years of the plan, the city would pay $2.2 million.

“We strongly urge city council to put this behind us,” Hopson said.

This is not the first time Hopson has mentioned investing in the iZone. Before talks of a settlement were public, Hopson talked about combining some school buildings to provide iZone services and searching for expansion funding.

The iZone, is the district’s effort to turnaround low performing schools by giving them flexibility over their budgets, staffing, schedules, and programming. It has been funded through federal School Improvement Grants, or SIG money, which runs out in 2016.

It has proven successful so far with six of the 13 schools in the effort improving enough that they are no longer at risk for state intervention.

Word of how the money would be spend was not lost on Sharon Griffin, regional superintendent of the iZone.

“That’s good news, but I want more clarity about the details,” said Griffin after Tuesday’s meeting.  Griffin said the iZone schools are working on a plan for sustaining their work without additional funding, but that they also pursuing philanthropic money to support their work.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.