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.”

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.


From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!


From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.


From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.


From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!


From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.


From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!


From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.


From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.


From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”