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To cut costs, Tennessee’s Achievement School District slashes staff

From left: Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson answers questions at a 2015 news conference with Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.
From left: Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson answers questions at a 2015 news conference with Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.
The Commercial Appeal

Tennessee is overhauling its state-run turnaround school district — and slashing jobs that support the district’s schools.

The cuts are falling largely on the five Memphis schools that the Achievement School District took over and began running directly, all in the Frayser neighborhood.

Half of the 59 positions working in or supporting those schools are being eliminated. The separate division that has run the schools since 2014 — the Achievement Schools network — will merge back into the ASD and will no longer have an executive director, ASD officials told staff on Thursday.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the move is intended to cut costs. The five schools, like many others in Memphis, have low enrollment, plus the state recently ran through the last of the federal dollars used to launch the district.

“We’ve got to look at our financial sustainability long term,” McQueen told Chalkbeat. “And to do that, we felt there was a reorganization, a ‘right-sizing’ of our organization, based on the funding we have.”

The restructuring marks the latest curtailment of the ASD. This spring, at the request of the State Department of Education, lawmakers passed bills that prevent the ASD from starting new schools and set new rules for state intervention to give local districts time and resources to turn around low performers first. The changes align with Tennessee’s new education plan in response to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Sustainability means viability — our shoring up and streamlining our financial and staffing models ensures we will be able to serve in our targeted communities and in the critical role outlined in the state’s newly introduced ESSA plan,” said ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson.

Nineteen of the 35 people who work in the Achievement Schools central office or with them in the ASD’s central office will lose their jobs. Nearly half of the network’s school-level support staff — 11 of 24 — will also lose their jobs.

The state-run schools will lose some teacher coaches and go from eight assistant principals to three, according to educators who were present for McQueen’s remarks.

The staff changes take effect June 30. The ASD’s other schools, all run by national and local charter operators, will not be affected by the changes.

About 100 Achievement Schools staff were present at Thursday’s meeting at Frayser Achievement Elementary School. Though the mood was mostly somber, one educator said he believed the restructuring would be worth it if it allows the schools to remain open.

“Without consolidation, the Achievement Schools could close,” said Derrick Freeman, a special education assistant at Westside Middle School. “So, I think this is a great idea if it saves the schools. It’s good for the community and the kids we serve to keep our schools open.”

Others questioned why the state would not use some of its $2 billion surplus to preserve positions at the school level.

Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Correction (May 5, 2017): This story has been updated to reflect the accurate breakdown of where the staff cuts are being made.

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