final argument

Uncertainty about debate’s future as Shelby Debate Society abruptly ends operations

PHOTO: Shelby Debate Society
Shelby Debate Society students visit with Sen. Lamar Alexander at the 2013 Urban Debate National Championship Tournament In Washington, D.C.

A nonprofit league that organizes speech and debate tournaments for students across Shelby County appears to have abruptly shut down, leaving teams at dozens of schools in the lurch.

The board of the seven-year-old Shelby Debate Society voted to cease operations last week, executive director Dwight Fryer told coaches and others in an email on Friday. The nonprofit had experienced “challenges with fund raising and has a deficit for this fiscal year,” he wrote, adding that he was stepping down.

The message, which is now Fryer’s email auto-response but does not appear on the debate society’s website, says Shelby County Schools “has been encouraged” to take over the group’s operations.

The lack of specificity about what might happen to the tournaments and teams that the society has organized alarmed coaches.

Jon Alfuth, one of the society’s nearly 40 coaches, said of Fryer’s suggestion for the district to take over, “That’s the part that got me a little freaked out. … There’s a lot of uncertainty at this point.”

Shelby County Schools officials declined to comment on the possibility of the district taking over the society but suggested that it might find a way to work with the society’s board of supporters.

“Right now, we are still hopeful our partnership with the Shelby Debate Commission will continue,” the district said in a statement.

Fryer said in the email that he had offered to train Shelby County Schools employees to run the program, which serves 250 to 350 students every year. Debate coaches, who receive a stipend for their time and travel, formed teams at about 28 high schools and middle schools. The teams spanned both district and charter schools, such as The Soulsville Charter School, where Alfuth teaches geometry and policy debate.

If the district were to take over, it is unclear if coaches at charter schools could remain involved.

The uncertainty means that students like Jamila Miller could go without a crucial extracurricular activity next year. Miller, a graduate of Soulsville Charter School, said debate brought out a sense of confidence in herself and in her peers that may not have been discovered otherwise.

Now a sophomore at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Miller was on the debate team for three years and competed in the Urban Debate National Championship in Washington, D.C. her senior year of high school.

“Not every high schooler in Memphis has access to speech classes or classes that really teach you to reason through your opinions and present an argument,” Miller said. “In this city, it’s devastating to take away programs like this that supplement student learning. We can’t just give up on this.”

Stable funding was a chronic issue for the program and worsened over the past few years, said James Sdoia, a Memphis businessman who originally founded the society as the Memphis Urban Debate League in 2008. He said he started the league because he was shocked that a debate club didn’t exist in Memphis public schools and remained on the board until two years ago.

“A debate club hadn’t existed in Memphis for 40 years when I founded this,” Sdoia said. “Students thrived in it, and so many went on to be successful in college. When I left, I knew the society would run its course unless additional funding was found. But we just can’t let this die for another 40 years.”

The society has appealed to the public for donations but failed to round up many. A crowd-funding request for a camp that had been scheduled for this week went live six months ago but raised only $310, out of a goal of $12,000, and the camp was canceled.

Debate parent Debby Howell-Moroney said she was disappointed to be told that the board decided to end the society instead of looking for a new director and additional funding. Howell-Moroney’s two children are on the debate team at White Station High School, and she herself was a debater in high school and college.

“I have seen this give a platform for the best and brightest to shine in some of the city’s poorest schools,” said Howell-Moroney, who volunteered with the society. “It gives a voice to these students that they can’t find elsewhere. I’m surprised they were so willing to just let this go.”

The voice Miller found through her years at debate now manifests itself in her poetry, such as her poem “Toward a Greater Memphis.”

“I used to just write what I felt,” she said. “But after I started debating, I realized my poetry could be a place where I could be a strong voice for my community and deliver what I was feeling backed up by facts and examples. Confidence. That’s the biggest thing debate gave me. What will happen to all those kids who don’t get the chance to discover confidence?”

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.