school finance

School leaders say it’ll take $1 billion to educate Memphis students

If asking for more money to add services is better than asking for more money to avoid cutting services, then Shelby County Schools is in a good place.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to use money from an expected county surplus and money from the school’s reserves to help the district pay for services like counseling and more security. His proposed operating budget for next year is $1 billion.

He’d like the county to pay the district $13 million from its expected surplus, and he’d use $25 million in the district’s reserve to help complete his spending proposal for next school year. The budget is up from $985 million last year. This is the second year in a row that the Memphis district is not facing severe cuts.

“We’re actually excited about the budget this year,” Hopson said. “To move from deep deficits to the second year of investments is huge.”

Included in the budget: $7 million for teacher pay raises, $4.3 million to hire 35 school counselors, $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers, and $800,000 to hire 10 more behavior specialists.

It also sets aside $2.4 million to add seats to the district’s preschool program, and $8 million to revamp its career and technical education programs, and to add more Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, and honors courses.

For more information on these budget items, read our primer.

The district and a coalition of community members and organizations successfully lobbied the county commission two years ago for a $22 million boost in funding to prevent a slew of cuts. But this year, Hopson’s request could face some opposition from county commissioners and county Mayor Mark Luttrell. He wants to see the county use an expected surplus — which could be as much as $25 million — to lower property taxes.

The county budget will be the last one Luttrell oversees before another mayor is elected this summer. In Luttrell’s final State of the County address in February, he said “even with an increase of local funding, we have yet to experience the improved outcomes that we so desperately desire.”

The presentation to school board members Wednesday afternoon gave details of what the district would look like if it had all the money it needed to provide adequate support and resources for every student — most of whom come from low-income families. Only some of that money, $38 million, was included in the budget proposal.

Hopson’s team estimated the total cost would add $82 million more to his proposed budget.

For years, school board members have pushed Hopson to think through those details so they can lobby the county and state for more funding. Shelby County Schools, among other Tennessee districts, is in the midst of a lawsuit against the state, saying it doesn’t adequately pay for its own funding formula, shorting them $100 million every year.

Part of the rosier revenue picture for Shelby County Schools comes from a slight uptick in enrollment this year after several years of free fall and Gov. Bill Haslam’s planned increase in education spending. That produced about $15 million more in state funding compared to last year, said Chief of Finance Lin Johnson.

The public can hear more about the budget during the board’s work session Tuesday, April 17. The school board is expected to vote Tuesday, April 24 when there will also be a public comment period. The budget would then go to county commissioners for approval.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.