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Hopson: Memphis schools have most stable budget in years, but it’s still not enough

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He led Tennessee's largest district since 2013.
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He led Tennessee's largest district since 2013.
Ruma Kumar

Shelby County Schools officials are riding high, fueled by a dramatic swing from operating in the red to landing solidly in the black in the new fiscal year that begins Saturday.

But they say the district still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success.

Last year, the school system faced down $50 million in proposed cuts, although not all went through. This year, officials have more than $50 million in new funding to pour into their priorities — which include restoring counseling cuts, growing a slimmed-down turnaround initiative, and raising pay for most teachers.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a process,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told Chalkbeat on Friday as another fiscal year ended. “You have to cut and reassess. And as you emerge, you’re able to be more strategic in how you spend your dollars.”

Four main factors contributed to the sunnier financial picture, Hopson said. Enrollment shrunk by less than expected, the county offered a funding boost, bus service was streamlined, and the district closed more than 20 schools in recent years.

Officials say the new spending — which brings the district’s budget to nearly $1 billion — has kicked off a positive cycle that should strengthen the district’s budget picture even more in the future.

“We are making smarter decisions using data … more than we ever have before and that has allowed us to invest back into high-quality learning,” Lin Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told county commissioners last week. “As we improve academics, enrollment is stabilizing.”

Still, officials say, the district is only making the most of too little in state funding.

Shelby County is one of several districts suing the state over its school funding formula. The school board also joined an unlikely coalition of education leaders who often disagree on how to fix schools to ask city government to voluntarily contribute $10 million to Memphis schools.

And there remain many positions that have never been restored after the tumultuous period in which the city and county districts merged, then split apart as six municipal districts seceded, said Susanne Jackson, a retired educator and former teacher union representative.

“I think some officials and people in the public may believe these are additions — and they don’t realize how deep the cuts have gone and what had been removed, impacting students academics and discipline issues,” Jackson said. “The inequities that still exist, considering what families have in income and assets in Shelby County Schools versus municipals, are still staggering.”

And with private school vouchers still a possibility in Tennessee, Hopson said the district’s newfound financial stability could be threatened.

“There’s always these unknowns,” Hopson said. “What happens if the voucher bill passes and we lose a bunch of students?”

The county commission, the local funding source, approved the school system’s budget Monday but delayed signing off on the county’s full budget until July 10, after the fiscal year has started. The slight delay won’t affect Shelby County Schools’ spending plan, county and district leaders said.

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