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Shelby County Schools seeking $14 million funding increase from county

The Shelby County Commission chambers is the site of budget hearings for local school districts.
The Shelby County Commission chambers is the site of budget hearings for local school districts.

Facing the loss of significant federal and philanthropic grant money and numerous other challenges, school leaders in Memphis will ask the Shelby County Commission for an additional $14 million to help Tennessee’s largest public school district continue its turnaround efforts.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is scheduled to appear before commissioners Wednesday, two weeks after the district’s Board of Education cut $125 million from the school system’s budget for next school year.

Hopson and his team will ask commissioners to fund 15 specific needs, including money to give bonuses to the district’s most effective teachers; hire more reading coaches, guidance counselors and social workers; and continue college and career preparation programs — all efforts they’ve touted as effective in improving student outcomes.

They’ll also ask to hire more financial analysts to help oversee the district’s $974 million budget — and a marketing director to attract more students to the system, which anticipates an enrollment drop of more than 2,600 students next school year alone.

The $14 million request is on top of the $301 million the district already is due from the county based on the current funding rate.

If approved, the increase would require the commission to provide and distribute an additional $4 million to the county’s six suburban municipal school districts, since state law requires proportional allocations to each school system.

In his $1.1 billion budget proposal, County Mayor Mark Luttrell has allocated only $6 million for “increase requests” from Shelby County Schools and the county’s 25 other departments. The commission already has received funding requests totaling $7 million from various departments.

Significant increases would require the commission to pull money from other departments or raise taxes, according to County Commissioner David Reaves, who served on the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools until last year.

“If we establish the need for an increase [for the schools], then where are we going to get the resources from?” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

A large chunk of Shelby County’s money already goes toward education. The county spent almost a third of its total revenue and about 60 percent of its collected property tax revenue — about $381 million — on education this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Another 12 percent went toward capital debt accrued during the 1990s when more schools were built in the sprawling suburbs.

Shelby County Schools has been beset by widespread challenges in recent years, including declining property values, a shrinking population and a mushrooming employee pension obligation.

In 2013, the district merged with the former Memphis City Schools after a funding dispute — then fractured with the creation of six new districts in the county’s suburbs. The state also took control of 15 underperforming schools resulting in the loss of thousands of students while per-pupil funding has remained flat. Meanwhile, costs associated with educating the county’s students — most of whom are poor and academically struggling — continue to climb.

Before the merger, Memphis’ superintendent came before the commission annually to ask for more money to stave off cuts. Since 2005, commissioners have obliged only twice.

The commission is obligated by law to maintain the amount of money allotted to its school districts. Any increase must be sustained in subsequent years.

This year, Hopson and his staff have outlined 15 specific needs and will give a detailed presentation on how those items align with district goals and would benefit the county.

Many of the items, such as the teacher bonuses, reading coaches and ACT and career preparation programs, previously were funded by $73.8 million received from the federal Race to the Top grant and a $90 million philanthropic grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Both grants, targeted mostly toward improving the district’s worst-performing schools, will be depleted by July 1.

Hopson’s list also asks for $90,000 to hire a marketing director to promote the district to families; $2.2 million to hire 15 guidance counselors and 15 social workers to reduce fighting in schools; and $4.4 million worth of computers as the district transitions to online student testing.

Board member Chris Caldwell said the district’s proposal is based on “the most strategic places to put that money” for the most significant return. “We wanted to leverage investments where we can get a bigger impact than anywhere else,” he said.

The needs list already has come under scrutiny from commissioners concerned about adding central office personnel such as a marketing specialist.

“I’m not going to go out and condone taking resources out of school,” Reaves said. “. . . The way you market your district is you have high-performing and safe schools. That has nothing to do with billboards.”

While administrators for Shelby County Schools were not available to comment, community interest in the funding request is high. The Memphis chapter of Stand for Children, a national parent organizing group, is rallying members to attend Wednesday’s budget hearings and lobby commissioners for approval.

“I think we’re still trying to figure out what’s the cost of education,” said Cardell Orrin, director of the Memphis chapter. “That’s something we’ve never answered effectively. That’s not to say there wasn’t fat that needed to be trimmed. We saw a lot of that during the de-merger. Now we have to look at, if we’re proving these are the things that work, we have to support those things or else we’re saying we don’t want to provide a great education for kids.”

The full commission is expected to vote on the county’s budget May 20.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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