Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by Code.org, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from Code.org to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

As Indiana’s teacher pay debate heats up, some lawmakers say schools spend too much outside the classroom

PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School.

Facing a tight budget year and widespread calls for teacher pay raises, some Indiana politicians are questioning whether school districts are spending too little of the funding that they already receive in the classroom and too much on administration.

The lawmakers point to statistics from the Office of Management and Budget showing that 57 percent of the $11.9 billion state dollars schools spent in 2016 were used in the classroom. And a report using data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows personnel hiring across the country has dramatically outpaced enrollment, with non-teacher hiring dwarfing that of full-time teachers.

“While the number of teachers and students in our public schools have essentially flatlined, administration and non-teaching staff have ballooned,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, told fellow lawmakers in November.

But school districts — eager to receive more money for teacher pay increases that will make them competitive with neighboring states — are pushing back on the characterization that they aren’t using funding as efficiently or responsibly as possible. Trimming administrative payroll alone won’t be enough to raise money for higher teacher salaries.

“When people make broad brush stroke comments about funding, it’s easy to take a shot at administrators,” said Flora Reichanadter, superintendent of Pike Township schools. “There’s this misconception … that (districts) just kind of squandered their money, which is an absolutely inaccurate statement.”

But just figuring out how much of what Indiana spends on schools directly affects students is a complicated endeavor — and figuring out what share goes solely to teachers is even harder. We know that in 2015, the most recent year available, 38 percent of Indiana’s K-12 staff members were full-time teachers. But Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, said Indiana can’t isolate teacher salaries and benefits from those of other licensed educators in order to see how much schools and districts spend on them alone.

“Part of our discussion has been trying to isolate those numbers and trying to figure out exactly what that is,” Behning said. “We’ve had difficulty getting data … The fact that teacher by definition is not just a classroom instructor, but could be a librarian or any number of things.”

During last month’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, Bosma said lawmakers and education advocates, including the state teachers unions, were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget — mirroring efforts underway to raise teacher pay across the nation. Gov. Eric Holcomb said he also plans to address teacher compensation — in the short- and long-term — though it’s not yet clear whether that means any action in 2019.

But numerous interests are fighting for limited state budget dollars this year, so lawmakers are scrutinizing how existing state funds are being spent by school districts.

“I think we need to have an open discussion about how do we have efficiencies and drive dollars to the classroom,” Behning said. “There’s no question there are things we can do … how do we do more to streamline the operations of the system?”

As an example of cost savings, Behning said that many districts, some of them small and rural, have their own bus depots and maintenance teams — services that could be combined with other districts or cities and towns to reduce spending.

A 2017 report from EdChoice, a national pro-school choice organization based in Indianapolis, criticized school districts for increasing spending on non-teaching staff instead of using the dollars on teacher salaries. Marty Lueken, director of fiscal policy and analysis for EdChoice, questions whether that has helped students.

“Whenever I hear someone say that schools are struggling with large classes, or need more resources for schools or classrooms, or teachers should be paid more, I think about these hiring practices,” he added. “We could have had those other things, like smaller classes or higher take-home pay for teachers, if district leaders made different personnel decisions.”

But only looking at staffing and comparing spending on full-time teachers and to spending on non-teacher leaves a lot out of the picture, said Dennis Costerison, executive director for the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. On its face, that comparison underestimates what schools spend on other adults, such as counselors and principals, who work directly with students, and part-time instructors, who are often cheaper and easier to hire than full-time educators.

“Administrator,” too, is a finicky term, Costerison said. Sometimes, the term includes department heads, who might also be full-time teachers.

Money not spent on teacher salaries also funds resources necessary to ensuring clean and safe schools, such as custodians, accountants, human resources staff, and school safety officers.

Reichanadter, who previously led Franklin Township schools, said school funding has not kept pace with the cost of living, and even if it had, cutting administrative positions isn’t enough to add up to teacher raises.

“There’s only so much you can cut,” she said. “There’s only one of me. There’s 500 teachers. Divide my salary up between 500 teachers and we’re talking about maybe a cup of coffee.”

Administrators, she cautions, also do work that otherwise would fall to principals or teachers, who should be spending their time in the classroom or guiding instructions, she said, not doing payroll or buying supplies. And while some administrative work seems far removed from student learning, the tasks add up to an environment and a system where learning can be the priority, she said. Plus, she added, some non-teaching roles have naturally increased as schools have added services for vulnerable students, such as nurses, occupational therapists, and interpreters.

“It’s ludicrous for some of the legislators to conclude that we didn’t pay attention to this,” Reichanadter said. “I have to be a really good steward of my resources because if I don’t and I don’t compete with my local area, then I’m going to lose teachers and have a lot of turnaround … and that affects learning.”

Costerison added that a portion of a district’s non-teaching costs are the result of mandates made by the very legislature that is critiquing school spending, such as requirements around school safety, testing, and teacher training.

“Whenever bills are passed and laws are enacted, some of them do have repercussions from the standpoint of additional staffing and additional responsibilities for administrators and teachers,” Costerison said.

The state’s most recent 2016 report on classroom spending from the Office of Management and Budget estimates about 57 percent of state dollars go to the classroom — a figure that includes teacher and principal salaries, dollars spent on materials and textbooks, and pay for counselors and similar staff. But that percentage not spent on classrooms includes funding that state law currently says can’t be spent on instruction, Costerison said.

Those off-limits categories include money for building maintenance and debt service — money that, until changes in the state laws about district budgeting take effect next year, couldn’t go toward teacher salaries even if districts wanted.

Lawmakers will have a tough time come January deciding which funding asks to prioritize in the face of shrinking state revenue and several urgent competing issues, including the need to better fund the Department of Child Services.

“When you look at the revenue that exists, the funding, quite frankly, isn’t there at the moment,” said Sen. Jeff Raatz, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The reality is that we have some significant hurdles we have to overcome to get where we need to go.”