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.

Amendment 73

Here’s how some districts would spend their share of a $1.6 billion tax hike for education

PHOTO: Katie Wood/The Denver Post
Teacher Mandy Rees talks to her middle school students at Bruce Randolph School on Wednesday, March 1, 2017.

If Colorado voters this November approve a $1.6 billion tax increase to benefit schools, several metro-area districts are pledging to spend part of their share to boost teacher pay.

Raising teacher salaries is an idea that’s gaining political popularity, fueled by teacher protests around the country and here in Colorado, where education funding is below the national average and several recent studies have found teachers are dramatically underpaid.

School boards in at least 70 of the state’s 178 school districts – including Denver, Aurora, Jeffco, Adams 14, Westminster, and Sheridan – have passed resolutions in support of the statewide tax increase, called Amendment 73. Some have also specified what their districts would spend the money on.

Amendment 73 would raise personal income taxes for residents making more than $150,000 per year. It would also raise the corporate income tax and make adjustments to property taxes. In separate ballot measures, districts across Colorado – including Aurora, Jeffco, and Westminster – are asking voters to raise local taxes to support education, as well.

In addition to teacher pay, all three large metro districts named expanding preschool as a priority if Amendment 73 passes. Aurora listed decreasing student-to-teacher ratios, while Denver listed reducing class sizes. Denver and Jeffco said they’d also spend more on mental health support for students.

Click the links below to read the resolutions in their entirety. We’ve also included bulleted summaries of the spending priorities in Denver, Jeffco, and Aurora.

A Denver teacher gave an evocative example to the school board Thursday of why the district should prioritize support for students’ mental health by hiring more psychologists and social workers, something it has already begun doing with money from local tax increases.

Here is what the teacher, Michelle Garrison, had to say.

There’s all kinds of facts and figures about the types of trauma students go through in their daily lives. … But when I really thought about how to tell this story, I wanted to share with you some things about how this manifests and looks in a school. … Here’s some things that have happened in the past three days.

Three different third-grade girls crying on three different days because one student with severe emotional needs keeps hitting them and pulling their hair.

Five first-graders crying because another student was sprinting around the room grabbing and crumpling everyone’s art project, ruining their work.

One seventh-grade boy who sleeps soundly, drool and all, every day this week and tells me he can’t sleep at night because he’s afraid someone is going to take his little sister.

Attending a meeting in which we were told to offer coloring sheets as our sole intervention for a boy who has been hitting students with blunt objects and jabbing at their throats.

Attending a trauma-informed practice (training) of which the thesis was, “Don’t yell at kids because they might have really messed-up things going on at home.” I’m not really sure what else to do about what they do, though.

The police have been called to our building three times.

Over 20 middle school students running in the halls, sprinting in and out of classrooms, running and sliding on the floor, blaring music over a Bluetooth speaker. It took 15 minutes and five adults to get them back into classrooms.

I could go on. This is half of what I wrote down. I think you get the point.

This is despite a school full of wonderful adults, wonderful administration, and really wonderful students. But this is the reality of what happens.

I was trained as an art teacher. I do not know what to do to help these students.

Click here to read Denver Public Schools’ resolution on Amendment 73. The $1.6 billion in revenue that the tax increase would generate would be divvied up between school districts, and Denver officials said they expect the district’s share will be $150 million each year.

The resolution says the district will prioritize spending the money on:

  • Increasing pay to attract and retain high-quality teachers and staff
  • Better supporting student mental health needs
  • “Targeted funding and strategies to better support student groups with higher needs, including efforts to reduce class sizes”
  • Expanding early childhood education opportunities

The resolution notes that the largest portion of the funds should be spent on teacher pay, though it doesn’t specify a dollar amount or percentage.

Click here to read Aurora Public Schools’ resolution. It says the district will prioritize:

  • Adding school-based instructional supports, reducing student-teacher ratios, and establishing a clear career ladder to recruit and retain high-quality teachers
  • Enhancing preschool by increasing access, expanding quality programming, and increasing compensation for preschool staff
  • Increasing compensation and benefits to maintain a competitive place in the market

Click here to read Jeffco Public Schools’ resolution. In addition to naming priorities, it specifies what percentage of the district’s share of the funding it would spend on each one.

  • 50 percent to attract and retain quality teachers and staff
  • 15 percent to lower class sizes and staffing shortages
  • 10 percent to add mental health support and counseling, and school security
  • 10 percent to expand early childhood education
  • 7.5 percent to expand career and technical options, as well as science, technology, engineering, and math options
  • 7.5 percent to buy classroom learning materials, technology, and supplies, and offset student fees

Click here to read Westminster’s resolution, here to read Adams 14’s resolution, and here to read Sheridan’s resolution.

Westminster and Adams 14 didn’t suggest how the funds should be used. Sheridan included some commitments, but they aren’t very specific. They include spending on strategies to close gaps in test scores between different groups of students, and maintaining “adequate district operational functions.”

The Colorado Association of School Boards is collecting district resolutions, and you can find more of them here.

Colorado voters have twice before rejected statewide tax increases for education. At both the school and municipal level, voters are much more receptive to local tax increases. The Colorado Association of School Boards, which supports Amendment 73, is urging its members around the state to be as specific as possible about how they’ll spend additional funds. An online guide encourages school boards to “engage stakeholders” and “hold public discussions.”

Opponents of the tax increase have criticized the lack of specificity in how new resources will be spent. They say that spending more money doesn’t guarantee students will do better in school.

But Lisa Weil, head of Great Education Colorado, a major backer of Amendment 73, said school districts had to decide on their own how to cut during the Great Recession, and they should get to decide now how to restore the money.

“In 10 and 20 and 30 years of cuts, the legislature has never said how to cut,” Weil said. “They’ve left that to local communities, and local communities have done what they can to keep cuts out of the classroom and keep serving kids. There is no better way to ensure accountability than to put these decisions in the hands of people who are accountable to voters. They know the community, and it’s where advocates have the most opportunity to make a difference.”

Chalkbeat staffers Yesenia Robles and Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood: