Who Is In Charge

Municipal superintendents cite challenges, benefits of split from Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

With their first school year complete, the superintendents of six municipal districts identified funding as their biggest challenge in stabilizing and developing the suburban ring around Memphis that opted in 2013 to break off from newly merged Shelby County Schools.

The superintendents reported on their districts’ status on Thursday during a summer study session on K-12 education by state lawmakers in the House of Representatives.

Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper was especially vocal about the challenges ahead for his district, which has struggled to repair its buildings and deal with a high teacher turnover rate. At Millington’s four schools, three had new principals during its first year of operation, and there was a 50 percent teacher turnover rate at its middle and high schools.

“It will take time until we get our staff on stable footing,” said Roper, who described his north Shelby County community as blue-collar with many low-income families.

Millington City Council just approved about $1 million in budget cuts, or 5 percent of the district’s budget, for the upcoming school year. “That’s going to affect our ability to build up the fund balance that we all need as newly created school districts,” Roper said. “You start off with a fund balance of zero. We all started out with a central office staff of one, and that was each one of us, and we had to build from there.”

After breaking off from the state’s largest school district, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching a new school system. The new districts are in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington, each previously part of the legacy Shelby County district.

The cities began to spin off and create their own districts after Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter, beginning a merger with legacy Shelby County Schools. (See Chalkbeat’s in-depth coverage of the merger, the municipalities split and the breakdown of the municipalities by the numbers).

After fighting legal battles with Shelby County and the city of Memphis, which brought lawsuits alleging that the creation of the new municipal districts was racially motivated, the municipalities opened their doors last August.

“There were those skeptical of six municipal school districts starting at one time,” said Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett). “These (superintendents) are responsible for making a difficult task not as difficult. But to say that there aren’t still rough hills to climb would not be proper.”

Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science at Rhodes College and author of “Opportunity Lost,” a book about the former Memphis City Schools, said the municipalities had optimistic projections of what it was going to cost to run their own school systems.

“One by one, they are realizing they need capital money,” Pohlmann told Chalkbeat in Memphis ahead of Thursday’s meeting. “If they want to be top-level school systems, and attract top-level teachers, it’s going to end up costing more local money.”

Lakeland officials have sparred with its residents over how to fund new school buildings. The city’s original plan, which would have built a $50 million combination middle and high school, was defeated in a referendum last April following opposition by a group called the Concerned Citizens of Lakeland.

City commissioners later approved construction of a middle school for grades 5-8 and a 55-cent property tax hike to cover the estimated $20 million cost.

The Lakeland School System is the smallest municipal district, with only one elementary school and 810 students enrolled. It sends its 1,200 older students to middle and high schools in Arlington and Bartlett, said Lakeland Schools director Ted Horrell.

“Those relationships and partnerships were critical to Lakeland being able to have its own school system,” Horrell said. “We’re the school system that everyone looked at and said, if anyone can’t do it, it’s them with one school. But we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the partnership of my colleagues here and the support from our legislators.”

David Stephens, director of Bartlett City School District, cited greater local control and community support as a positive outcome of the split. The goal, he said, is to see all students, including those in Shelby County Schools, improve.

“We want to create a lot of competition,” Stephens said. “A rising tide is going to raise all boats. We all have open enrollment, so there’s that competition of trying to draw students in.”

All municipalities reported that students had enrolled from outside of their districts, some even from outside of Shelby County.

Tammy Mason, director of Arlington Community Schools, said her schools have the highest number of non-resident students out of all the municipal districts. Out of 600 students not within Arlington’s boundaries, 100 come from Fayette County and pay a tuition of about $1,200 to 1,300 a year to attend, she said. Only students from outside of Shelby County have to pay.

“One of the big win-wins in creating municipal districts is giving parents more choice,” Mason said, adding that former private school students are also moving to the municipal public schools.

Several superintendents said they are pleased with their district’s test academic results for this year, which will be released later this month. But Mason cautioned that next school year’s change in Tennessee’s assessment will pose challenges.

“If we really want to move forward, we have to have stability over time in what our assessments look like,” Mason said. “Our students are probably doing way better than they were three years ago, but with the constantly changing standards and assessments, no one really knows.”

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) commended the superintendents for their work. “Whenever the city of Memphis gave up their charter a few years back, it destabilized a lot of happy parents,” said White, as he pointed to a map that etches out the new municipal districts in Shelby County. “Now, you see an eastern border with happy families in good school systems. That’s what’s going to stabilize Shelby County.”

Pohlmann said school funding and facilities will remain challenges for the new districts,  but that “eventually they will have to address the big elephant in the room, and that’s race.”

“There are sizable African-American populations in those schools, and I don’t know if there’s a single African-American on any of the six school boards,” Pohlmann said. “That’s not going to cut it. They aren’t cookie cutter; their kids have different needs and backgrounds, and their schools are becoming more diverse each year.”

While school demographics were not discussed during Thursday’s legislative update, Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) asked the superintendents to provide the review committee with demographic information.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.