Five things

Budget cuts loom for Shelby County Schools, again — here’s what we know

Faced with annual budget cuts since becoming a unified district in 2013, Shelby County Schools has managed to keep most cuts from directly impacting classrooms.

Next school year will be different, says Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

“There’s nowhere else to cut but the classrooms,” Hopson warned board members last week as he stared at an $86 million projected shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

This Wednesday, Hopson will outline his proposed cuts during a school board work session, kicking off a two-month process to hone the district’s spending plan. District leaders are scheduled to present their 2016-17 budget on May 25 to the Shelby County Commission, which approves local funding.

Here are five things we know going into the process:

  1. The next round of cuts are likely to be the most painful yet. On its studentsdeservemore.com website launched last week, the district offered an eight-point list of potential cuts, including decreasing teacher benefits, eliminating assistant principal positions at smaller schools, and closing more schools. Also on the table: fewer summer school courses, decreasing pay for substitute teachers, and shrinking the maximum distance for students receiving bus transportation.
  2. The starting numbers have gotten worse, not better, though they’re still better than where the process began last year. Next year’s shortfall, projected last fall at $72 million, is now up to $86 million. Hopson already has identified $50 million worth of cuts, leaving a gap of $36 million to address. This time last year, the district faced a deficit of $125 million, which it resolved through cost-cutting measures such as eliminating 482 positions and outsourcing services such as maintenance.
  3. Much of the cost-cutting is being driven by shrinking enrollment. And enrollment — and the money that follows it — are getting harder to predict. In 2013, the newly merged district had nearly 150,000 students, but enrollment is now at 110,000. The district took a large hit in 2014 when six suburban municipalities seceded from Shelby County Schools by creating their own school systems. It’s also steadily lost students to the state-run Achievement School District, which has taken control of 27 low-performing Memphis schools since 2011 and will add four more next fall. In addition, Memphis has a high rate of mobility. To address the student shrinkage, 20 Memphis schools have been shuttered since 2012, and the board recently voted to close another school next year due to under-enrollment. District staff also are developing a five-year school closing plan to present to the board next fall.
  4. And it doesn’t help that the $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is scheduled to dry up this year. Since receiving its first check in late 2009, the district has received quarterly payments from the landmark grant to support its teacher and principal quality improvement work. But with the last of that money due to be allocated this year, the district must decide whether or how to continue that work. Potentially exacerbating the situation, Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed changes to the state’s education funding formula that could decrease state money that the district has enjoyed to boost teacher salaries because, locally, private sector wages significantly outweigh government job wages. Last year, Shelby County Schools received almost $31 million for that purpose.
  5. The final budget will almost certainly look different from the starting point. Hopson is expected to recommend that the board ask the County Commission for increased local funding — again. And, in an unprecedented move, the district has developed a website as a hub for rallying employees, parents and community members to advocate for additional funding from both the county and the state. Last year, the board received about half of the additional $14 million requested from the county, on top of its regular allocation based on the funding rate. At the time, commissioners grilled administrators about their spending habits and expressed frustration that local governments are increasingly being asked to pick up the slack for the state when it comes to adequately funding schools. That sentiment doesn’t appear to have changed. Asked about the prospects of the commission voting to fund this year’s $36 million gap, David Reaves, the commissioner’s education committee chairman, offered a quick summation. “Highly unlikely,” he said.

Old buildings

Community members have plenty to say about CPS’ 10-year facilities master plan

PHOTO: Public Building Commission of Chicago
Frederic Chopin Elementary School in Humboldt Park is one of the few Chicago schools scheduled for building improvements as part of the school district's latest capital plan.

Carolina Gaete had a question. The North Lawndale resident wanted to know how Chicago Public Schools decides which improvements to fund at the hundreds of district campuses across the city. “How is it determined which schools are prioritized?” asked Gaete, co-director of community group Blocks Together and the mother of a CPS graduate. “Do you have a system—and what’s the process?”

Gaete’s question to the district—more on the answer later—was posed Monday during a community meeting in West Humboldt Park with CPS officials. Chicago schools that suffer from faulty boilers, leaky roofs, and crumbling masonry have little recourse given that CPS’ $189 million capital budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 only addresses 6 percent of the estimated $3.4 billion need. 

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
The community meeting was held on June 11 in the Nia Family Center.

Between now and June 28, CPS is sending staff to community meetings to gather feedback for the latest draft of its Educational Facilities Master Plan. The 10-year plan, born out of a 2011 state law aimed at increasing transparency around the district’s investments in school buildings, is updated periodically. The law requires community input.

All of the meetings are open to the public. Most are hosted by parent advisory councils and community action councils. Here’s the list of meetings.

At the West Humboldt Park event, a handful of public school officials filed into the Nia Family Center and settled along the back wall of a conference room. Gaete and other members of the West Humboldt Community Action Council listened as Dispensa covered some basics: how the city prioritizes building investments across 16 planning zones, factoring for facility deficiencies as well as population and enrollment trends, and how the district calculates building utilization rates, which have been used to justify school closings.  

Gaete, like several councilmembers, is part of Blocks Together, a community group that helped craft the 2011 state law that sought to reform the facility planning process at CPS. Unsurprisingly, they were among the most vocal when Dispensa concluded his presentation and opened the floor to questions and comments. Gaete was ready: “How is it determined which schools are prioritized—what’s the process?”

In response, Dispensa explained that CPS prioritizes individual building needs starting with roofs and masonry, then it ranks next all needs related to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, and interior finishes and program spaces. Areas outside schools such as playgrounds and parking lots rank last.

“There is a process,” Dispensa continued.  “It begins with having proper facility assessments from expert architects who go and visit every school and tell them what the priorities are.”

Gaete followed up: “How often are those assessments done?”

One of the district planners seated behind Gaete said every two years—but that the assessments had been suspended since 2015 due to budget constraints. Most of the building condition information in the draft facilities plan is outdated.

The district’s capital budget for the upcoming fiscal year identifies improvements for only 23 of CPS’ 526 campuses across the city. About 80 percent of the budget is earmarked for the first priority tier: exterior renovations to roofs, windows and masonry. Dispensa said the district could use more state funding to better address its capital needs.

But the meeting on Monday was about more than money and building assessments:

  • West Humboldt Community Action Council member and CPS parent Cecile Carroll, 34, said during the meeting that the plan doesn’t articulate where the district is going to place charter schools or how much money it spends on charter facilities. “We can’t do our job and plan better for our schools when we have a whole other piece to the puzzle we’re not able to see,” said Carroll, Gaete’s co-director at Blocks Together and a member of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which the Illinois General Assembly established in 2009 to examine decisions made by CPS.
  • Council members also questioned Dispensa about the district’s utilization formula—that is, the equation the district uses to determine whether a school is “underutilized,” “efficient,” or “overcrowded.” They suggested that CPS strongly consider alternatives to closing schools where the population of students has dwindled. They gave such ideas as sharing extra space with community based social service agencies, adjusting attendance boundaries, or investing in school improvements to boost academic achievement.
  • Several people asked the district to bolster its outreach efforts around the facilities plan, contending that not every community is represented by the groups on the current tour. They complained that the slate of June facility meetings only includes one with a Local School Council.

While Dispensa said CPS aims to work with certain groups, he pointed out these are open meetings. “I think that we can all agree the district hasn’t done as great a job with [community feedback] as we know we can,” he said. “And so we’re taking this opportunity to work with (community groups) to get a better sense of what that engagement looks like.”

School Finance

Here’s what led to Indiana’s heated debate about sending federal dollars to struggling schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana education officials are cautiously moving forward with a plan to send millions of extra dollars to the state’s most struggling schools next year — but how much, and to which schools, caused a contentious debate.

The Indiana State Board of Education is planning to direct more than $6.1 million in federal school improvement funds to schools where the state has intervened because of poor academic performance. Called turnaround academies, they include schools in state takeover as well as those with state-approved partnerships with charter school operators and other intensive supports. The funding, though, is a 6 percent decrease — or nearly $400,000 less — than what was allocated last year.

There are still questions about whether the plan, created by state board staff members, will pass muster under a new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, which classifies schools eligible for school improvement funding differently than Indiana has in the past.

Until federal officials sign-off on the funding plan, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, the Indiana Department of Education, which is tasked with handling federal Title I funding, won’t be doling out the extra funds to struggling schools just yet.

“That’s the big unknown right now,” said McCormick, the lone state board member who voted against the plan. “We will submit everything to the feds. As far as the recommendations that came out, until I have it in writing from the feds, we’re on pause … You don’t want the department of education at the state level to willy-nilly distribute federal funds.”

The board’s decision to follow its staff’s recommendations regarding the funding, rather than the education department’s, followed heated arguments between state board staff members and department officials. The two groups couldn’t agree on how much funding the turnaround schools should get — or if some of the schools were eligible to get any extra money at all.

The department said that under the federal ESSA law, schools can only receive the turnaround funds if they are in the lowest 5 percent of all Title I schools, receive an F letter grade from the state or a have a graduation rate of 67 percent or less. Indiana, though, considered Title I schools with F grades and any schools under state intervention to be eligible. It isn’t clear if the federal education department will allow three schools that meet Indiana’s threshold but not ESSA’s to continue receiving the funds.

“I think there are legal questions to still be answered,” said Nathan Williamson, director of Title grants and support for the state.

Also complicating matters, the state received less money from the federal government to give out for school improvement efforts overall — $17.4 million instead of $18.5 million. Plus, more schools are likely to qualify for those grants this year, primarily due to the new way the federal government is requiring the state to classify low-performing schools coupled with a dip in graduation rate. The state will have a final number in October, but department officials said it was probably going to be about 100 more schools, in addition to around 200 last year.

Because of the funding crunch, education department officials wanted to reduce the money sent just to schools under state intervention to $4 million instead of $6.1 million. That way, they said, there would be more leftover so that other low-rated schools that need help — but don’t qualify for state intervention — can apply for potential funds.

“All of them need at least some support,” said Williamson. “Otherwise, we’ll get them some support (when it’s too late), and it’ll be four years later and students, in the meantime, are the ones who suffer.”

But state board staff members argued that Indiana made a commitment to the schools under state intervention, and keeping their funding more consistent with what it has been in the past is the board’s responsibility.

“These are schools that we’re responsible for,” said board member Tony Walker, who represents Northwest Indiana. “How do we deliver a better school back to the district when we’re taking $1 million out from the people running the schools?”

The biggest discrepancy in funding proposals was for Charter Schools USA, the charter company that stepped in to manage three Indianapolis Public Schools when they were taken over by the state in 2011. The state board, which hired CSUSA, suggested maintaining the funding at close to the same rate. But the department of education suggested slashing CSUSA’s funding by $1.8 million for the three schools, in order to direct funds to other struggling schools.

McCormick said the department’s suggestions were based primarily on the number of schools that operators were in charge of. CSUSA, for example, is responsible for three schools. Indianapolis Public Schools, in charge of seven, would have gotten $1.4 million under the department’s plan. (The state board plan has them at $1.2 million.)

State board staff said their recommendations were more aligned with what the turnaround schools had budgeted themselves.