pony up

New coalition asks Memphis mayor to pump $10 million into education

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who took office in 2016, has been a proponent of pre-K investments and even spoke in favor of universal pre-K on the campaign trail.

Memphis education leaders with opposing views on how to fix the city’s schools can agree on one thing: The city needs to “get back in the business of funding public education.”

A diverse coalition of stakeholders is calling on Mayor Jim Strickland to include at least $10 million in the city’s upcoming budget to help pay for career and technical training for in-demand jobs, as well as after-school programs and social supports for potential dropouts. The group wants at least half of the money to be funneled through public schools and the rest through community programs.

In an April 13 letter, the group called children “our city’s greatest asset” and offered to meet with Strickland as his administration finalizes its spending plan for the next fiscal year.

“We’ve heard Mayor Strickland and members of the (City) Council state time and again that education is a major issue and top area of concern for the city. Yet, in the next sentence they will say that the city is out of the business of education,” said Cardell Orrin, Memphis director of Stand for Children, in a statement Monday.

The letter — signed by 14 organizations and 16 community leaders including state lawmakers, pastors and school board members — is the latest volley hurled at the city for providing the minimum required financial support to public education under the terms of a 2015 legal settlement. Last year, Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland compared city government to a “deadbeat parent” as the county struggled to help Shelby County Schools fill a $35 million budget gap.

But city spokeswoman Ursula Madden said the group is barking up the wrong tree. She said the city already funds many programs contributing to education as part of its “public safety strategy.”

“We may not be putting money in Shelby County Schools, but we’re looking for ways to increase quality programming,” Madden said. “We‘re not discounting any of their concerns. We share some of their concerns, quite frankly. But we’re doing our part.”

Responding later with his own letter to the coalition, Mayor Strickland said the city invests $50 million annually for parks and libraries that support children. As for more career training, he noted partnerships in the works with Southwest Tennessee Community College, Moore Tech and Tennessee College of Applied Technology.

“Also, taxpayers in Memphis do, in fact, finance Shelby County Schools through county taxes. And, a few years ago, the citizens of Memphis voted not to be ‘double taxed’ and to surrender the charter of the former Memphis City Schools,” Strickland wrote.


From our archive: Six things to know about Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland on education


Shelby County has been the local funding agent for Memphis-area public schools since the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with legacy Shelby County Schools. That happened after the city’s school board voted in 2010 to surrender its charter and the subsequent merger was approved in a countywide referendum.

The coalition’s letter points out that, while the city is no longer legally obligated to fund local schools, education directly impacts the city’s quality of life.

“We hope that you will think of our youth not under a crime plan, but under a youth success plan where supporting their educational achievement is paramount,” the letter said. “Our young people should be viewed not as part of a crime problem, but as the solution to the challenges of our city. Our commitment to education and youth success should be at least as much of a priority as increasing the police force.”

The group, called the Fund Students First Coalition, includes representatives both of Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which often have been at odds over school takeovers that siphoned off students and funding from the local district. The coalition also includes charter school advocates and a local teachers union.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

Chris Caldwell, who signed the letter as chairman of Shelby County’s Board of Education, noted that the vast majority of the district’s students are Memphis residents. “I would think that would give city leaders rationale for taking an interest in (providing) significant resources to achieve its goals,” he said.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari said she signed the letter because education should fall under the city’s public safety focus.

“With high crime, unemployment, and poverty rates persisting, funding for these strategic investments can increase academic achievement and graduation rates, and enhance postsecondary success for students,” said the Memphis Democrat.

The coalition’s $10 million ask is a relatively small amount compared to the $945 million proposed budget of Shelby County Schools. The coalition is asking that half of the money it’s requesting go to public schools operated by Shelby County Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and charter management organizations.

The coalition letter cites a recent Rutgers University study that said Shelby County Schools has “some of the most extreme fiscal conditions” among districts with higher-than-average poverty rates and lower-than-average revenues.

Strickland is scheduled to present his proposed budget to City Council on April 25.

Below is the coalition’s full letter, which outlines specific ways that the coalition is requesting the city to fund education efforts and the mayor’s full response:

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Mayor Strickland’s response in an April 21 letter to the coalition.

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.