Who's In Charge

What an author’s visit to Memphis tells us about competing ideas for the district’s future

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Marcus Robinson, left, CEO of Memphis Education Fund and author David Osborne at an event Tuesday in Crosstown Concourse.

When education insiders gathered earlier this week to hear from the author of a new book about school governance, they were also getting a glimpse into one big idea that’s reshaping local schools.

The author was David Osborne, and his new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” argues that city school districts should stop directly running schools, and should instead hand that power over to non-government groups like charter schools.

It’s a model that some leaders in Memphis, including those who brought Osborne to town, are giving close attention. Among them is Marcus Robinson, the leader of the Memphis Education Fund, which hosted the event with Osborne. Robinson came to Memphis a year ago from Indianapolis, one of the cities Osborne highlights as a beacon of his favored model.

Originally called Teacher Town, last year Memphis Education Fund changed its name and adopted a new mission: to improve every aspect of local schools, not just teaching. But what efforts exactly would get the fund’s support has been unclear.

If Robinson does endorse Osborne’s vision and pushes leaders at Shelby County Schools to embrace charter schools, he and the Memphis Education Fund could find themselves on a collision course with the Shelby County Schools board.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

Currently, Shelby County’s schools chief, Dorsey Hopson, has made clear that he sees the district as competing with the charter sector, not receding to allow the sector to flourish or even existing peacefully alongside it. And throughout the presentation with Osborne, at least one school board member sitting in the audience, Stephanie Love, audibly made her displeasure known.

Robinson tried to appease Love and others in attendance who expressed skepticism about Osborne’s vision, while still backing a key requirement of it. “No matter how you do school or who is governing it, none of it works to get our kids up the ladder unless there is a high level of accountability to close a bad school,” he said.

Many aspects of schooling in Memphis puts it on the right track, according to Obsorne’s assessment. The state’s turnaround initiative, the Achievement School District, offers choice for parents, third-party operators running schools, and, at least in theory, consequences for schools that don’t deliver results. (Osborne lauded the district’s test scores, at times exaggerating their performance.) The school district has also supported an initiative to give some schools more autonomy in exchange for accountability. And a robust charter sector offers more choices for families, and deepens pressure for schools either to attract families or have to close.

But the school board and Hopson, its chosen leader, have been reluctant participants in some of those initiatives. While Hopson says he supports a portfolio district in theory, his administration has at times worked to undermine such a transition.

A searing example came in recent robocalls to parents, encouraging them not to allow charter schools to have access to their contact information.

In his presentation, Osborne said resistance from superintendents and school boards is the biggest obstacle to revamping school districts in the way he believes will make a difference for students. He suggested that school boards actually work against letting public will influence districts’ direction.

“If we are on a school board and we’re elected, and we have thousands of employees and they all vote in school board elections at which turnout is often 10 or 15 percent, we better not get them too angry at us or we’re going to lose our jobs,” Osborne said. “Same with the superintendent.”

Robinson echoed that sentiment, saying that the cities Osborne extols had “a lot of courage” to make systemic changes and close low-performing schools. He also said that in those cities, “the agents of change [are] the school board, not the principal.”

Since arriving in Memphis, Robinson has worked to import ideas from Indianapolis. He brought several of his deputies from that city, and next week, the Memphis Education Fund is paying for school board members to travel there.

Whether board members will be receptive to what they learn is unclear. After Obsorne’s book talk, Love defended the board as already having made unpopular decisions, such as to close nearly two dozen schools over the past five years.

If Osborne’s plan were the golden ticket, she said, schools across Memphis would be further along. But she said schools that the board does not supervise, including those run by the Achievement School District, are not held to the same standards.

“There is no real accountability across the board for all of our educational options,” Love said. “It sounded good, but it’s unrealistic.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.