Breakaway districts

Tennessee opened a Pandora’s box by lifting the ban on new school districts. Now on to the details.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee State Capitol

When a 2013 state law allowed six Shelby County towns to break away from the newly merged Memphis district and create their own school systems, some lawmakers warned it would open up a Pandora’s box across Tennessee.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire

Now a handful of towns are exploring the option too, and one lawmaker is trying to address one of the stickiest related issues.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire says school buildings should follow the students. He introduced a bill in January aimed at determining the fair market value of property caught in the crosshairs of a transfer of students from an existing district to a new one.

But the Chattanooga Republican amended his bill last week, asking lawmakers instead to send the contentious issue to a state policy research group for further study. The Senate Education Committee green-lighted his request, and Rep. Harry Brooks, who is co-sponsoring the bill, will take the study proposal before a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

Gardenhire acknowledges that the scope of his proposed study is limited to school property. It does nothing to examine the impact of a district secession to the school system that’s left behind — or if schools could become more segregated when new districts are created.

“I’m only asking about an equitable way to transfer property. That’s the main thing I hear folks asking about,” said Gardenhire, whose Hamilton County district includes East Ridge, where there’s been talk of leaving the urban school system in Chattanooga.

The 2013 law that lifted Tennessee’s ban on new districts requires only that a town seeking the new school system have at least 1,500 students, the tax base to support it, and a majority of residents approving the change in a referendum.

However, the law doesn’t spell out how to transfer school property. It also doesn’t require a study of the potential impact on the district left behind — for instance, who’s responsible for the liability for retiree benefits or whether the transfer of students would make public schools more segregated.

In Shelby County, the 2014 departure of six mostly white and more affluent suburban towns saddled the Memphis district, which serves students who are generally poorer and mostly black, with a $1 billion-plus liability in retiree benefits. The exodus also solidified segregation along mostly the same lines that existed before city and county schools merged in 2013.

A 2017 report by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on education funding and inequality, called Shelby County one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class.

After the pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve built their school systems from the ground up.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

Shelby County municipal leaders note that most of their new districts have shown improvements on state test scores for high schools, while Shelby County Schools continues to struggle.

Gardenhire’s bill would task the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations with studying the school property issue, which in Memphis was negotiated by administrators and lawyers for the towns and Shelby County Schools in response to a lawsuit over the details of the transfer.

“I’m extremely focused on that one point, and I’m staying away from those other issues,” Gardenhire told Chalkbeat on Monday.

A related resolution, which passed the full Senate on Monday, may open the door to some of the rest.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, who sponsored the companion resolution, wants the same policy group “to study the overall effects on public education relative to having multiple school districts operating in the same county.”

Explaining his resolution to fellow senators last week, the Gallatin Republican said he’s mostly concerned about “what the financial implications are to the current school district, for the new school district, for the taxpayers.”  

Haile said his request stems from “a lot of conversations” statewide about the possibility of forming new school districts. (The breakaways being discussed, according to Gardenhire, include the towns of Signal Mountain and East Ridge from Hamilton County, Brentwood from Williamson County, and Farragut from Knox County.)

“It dawned on me real quick I didn’t have enough information to make a logical data-driven decision on this,” Haile said of the need for further study. “I felt like it was just critical we not make this an emotional and political decision.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here:

School safety

Report lists litany of failings over police in Chicago schools

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Police officers stand alongside Lake Shore Drive in August as protesters decry violence and lack of investment in African-American neighborhoods and schools

The Chicago Police Department doesn’t adequately screen and train the officers it assigns to Chicago Public Schools, and their roles in schools are poorly defined, according to a sharply critical report released today by the Office of Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

The report lists a litany of failings, including basic administration: There is no current agreement between the police department and the district governing the deployment of school resource officers, or SROs, and neither the schools nor the police even have a current list of the officers working in schools this year.

The inspector general’s report also mentions several sets of SRO resources and best practices created and endorsed by the federal government, then notes that Chicago hasn’t adopted any of them. “CPD’s current lack of guidance and structure for SROs amplifies community concerns and underscores the high probability that students are unnecessarily becoming involved in the criminal justice system, despite the availability of alternate solutions,” says the report.

Chalkbeat reported in August about incidents in which SROs used batons and tasers on students while intervening in routine disciplinary matters.

Scrutiny of SROs is nothing new, and is part of the broader CPD consent decree brokered this week between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. That agreement calls for better training and vetting of SROs, as well as a clearer delineation of their roles on campuses—including a prohibition against participating in routine school discipline — beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

Read more: How the police consent decree could impact Chicago schools

But the report from Ferguson’s office says that the consent decree doesn’t go far enough. It chastises police for not pledging to include the community in the creation of its agreement with the school district, nor in the establishment of hiring guidelines; and for not creating a plan for evaluating SROs’ performance, among other recommendations. In addition, the report criticizes the police department for delaying the reforms until the 2019-20 school year. A draft of the inspector general’s report was given to the police department in early August in hopes that some of the issues could be resolved in time for the school year that began last week. The police department asked for an extension for its reply.