School board members unanimously approved a $1.4 billion budget Tuesday, and are asking county leaders for additional $7.5 million to boost reading instruction, strengthen support for English language learners, and increase graduation rates.
The budget highlights the priorities set forth under Shelby County Schools’ new superintendent, Joris Ray: growing the district’s Innovation Zone for improving struggling schools, focusing on early literacy, and adding more social and emotional support for the district’s 103,015 students, more than half of whom come from low-income families.
The Shelby County Schools budget includes two major parts: the general operating fund that pays for the day-to-day expenses of running the district, including teacher salaries and classroom initiatives, totaling $1.04 billion; and the remaining $360 million capital budget that covers the costs of new schools and building maintenance.
Just last week, Shelby County Schools had sought an additional $10 million from the county. But over the weekend, district officials and county leaders planned to redirect existing funds “to manage the need for additional pre-K seats,” thus decreasing their extrabudgetary ask by $2.5 million, Ray said.
The approved spending plan will go Wednesday morning to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for schools. Commissioners will need to approve the district’s budget before the fiscal year ends on June 30.
The plan also includes a 2.5% raise for teachers, thanks to additional allocations in Gov. Bill Lee’s budget.
But it does not include a $5.6 million request to raise pay for about 800 part-time employees to $15 per hour. Ray said he was optimistic, though, that Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris would help find funding for the increase outside of the district’s budget.
“All people deserve a living wage,” Ray said. “I’m happy the mayor is championing this cause.”
County commissioners had asked for an earlier look at the budget for schools, but district leaders were about a month behind previous years in presenting a proposal. Commissioner Eddie Jones, chair of the budget committee, told Chalkbeat last week that he wasn’t optimistic commissioners would be able to find the additional $10 million the district was requesting.
Ray was confident Tuesday night that the reduced ask would be more “palatable.”
For more details on the district’s request to the county commission, read more here.
“These are wise investments,” board member Kevin Woods said of the superintendent’s spending plan. “[Ray] has made it very clear the things we want to see in order to move the needle forward.”
Shelby County Schools board members were originally supposed to vote on the budget last week but opted to delay because they got the full proposal only hours before the scheduled the vote. Tuesday’s vote, which came without much discussion or any questions from board members, brings to an end the first budget cycle under the district’s new superintendent. Ray had served in an interim capacity for three months before the school board unanimously voted him in last month.
Before the vote, Ray presented a couple of high-level points to the crowded room, including a plan to further study how the district can better serve black boys, who are at a higher risk of suspensions and expulsions and are less likely to be a part of advanced academic programs.
The budget allocates $400,000 to replace federal money for Project Stand, a program for students leaving juvenile detention, and $1.1 million for ACT preparation. The district set aside $1.7 million for nearly 60 assistants for second-grade teachers in schools with very low reading scores as leaders move toward retaining students who don’t read at grade level.
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There’s also funding for a restorative discipline pilot in which 30 schools will have a “reset room” with dedicated staff; students can go there for support if they are struggling with behavior in class. Designed to help reduce suspensions and expulsions, it is part of Shelby County Schools stated efforts to become “a fully trauma-informed and trauma responsive district.”
Funding is based on student enrollment, which has grown the past two years, mostly thanks to charter schools. The number of Memphis students attending charter schools overseen by the district increased 5.8 percent last year, while enrollment in district-run schools increased about 2 percent.
The plan also includes adding 11 schools to the Innovation Zone, or iZone, as announced in January. The new budget allocates $700,000 per school in the program, a $100,000 increase over previous years. iZone schools use state and federal grants to make the school day longer, incentivize high-performing teachers, and combat some of the effects in the classroom of poverty. School leaders also have more autonomy over financial, scheduling and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools.
Thirteen schools currently in the iZone will exit the program and enter a new “continuous improvement zone” to ensure the schools don’t reverse their gains. The new budget allocates $350,000 for the continuous zone, which longtime iZone principal Rodney Rowan will lead.
One of the biggest differences between the new budget and the 2018-19 one is the district is using $10 million of its reserves, down from $49 million last year. In previous years, board members and county commissioners urged the district to spend down their savings and earmark a smaller portion of its budget for reserves. (The district’s reserve fund totaled $76 million as of the end of 2018.)
Claudia Nell Ward, a teacher at Snowden K-8 and mother of two children at that school, said that she’s enjoyed meeting with district leaders on the budget as part of a coalition on education issues, which includes the interfaith group MICAH and the teacher-led 9-0-ONE.
“It’s empowering to me as a parent and educator, and encouraging to see a desire for increased transparency and communication in next budget season,” Ward said Tuesday during the meeting.
The district gave four days notice before holding three meetings in May to gather community input and explain next year’s priorities, but few people attended. Cardell Orrin, the executive director of advocacy organization Stand for Children, said he and other members of the coalition had hoped for more time.
“Our members have been a little frustrated about the opportunity to engage and give input into the budget,” Orrin said before the vote.
If the county approves the budget, it will go into effect July 1.
Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.