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?”

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.