charter funding

Comptroller report underscores ‘insufficient clarity, transparency’ in Tennessee funding for charter schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Delores Gresham (at right) presents a bill this year on the floor of the Tennessee Senate. Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, requested this week's report from the state comptroller's office.

Tennessee guidelines are so muddled on how funding should be allocated to charter schools that it’s unclear whether those schools are receiving the correct amount of money from their local districts, says a report released Tuesday by the state comptroller.

After analyzing five years of enrollment and funding data, the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability concluded that “there is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee.”

The report, requested last winter from Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, comes as debate intensifies in Tennessee about the cost and impact of charter school growth on traditional schools, as well as the adequacy of state funding for public education.

The State Department of Education already is preparing legislation to bring before the General Assembly next year to address some of the concerns about charter school funding.

The findings have special significance to Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, home to the vast majority of the state’s charter schools, which are independent but publicly funded schools operated under a charter contract between the school and its authorizing agency.

In Tennessee, local districts allocate funding to charter schools based on the district’s total funding from state and local governments, along with district and charter school enrollment. The report keys in on questions about which local district enrollment numbers to use when calculating money owed to charters. Districts generally use their previous-year enrollment.

Charter school funding = (state and local money / district enrollment) X charter school enrollment

But the report highlights one case in which the state instructed Shelby County Schools, seemingly against protocol, to use the district’s current-year enrollment instead of previous-year enrollment. That resulted in Shelby County Schools shelling out $517,000 more to charter schools at a time when Tennessee’s largest district was reeling from decreased funding due to an exodus of students entering six suburban municipal school districts created in 2014.

“State law, State Board of Education rules, and Tennessee Department of Education policies do not currently provide clear and complete definitions of formula components districts use to calculate charter school funding,” the report said. “The situation has resulted in a lack of uniformity in calculating funding for charter schools across the state.”

In growing districts, such as Metro Nashville, state guidelines are also unclear about allocation of additional state funds meant to offset cost of an increased student population. That ambiguity could cause charter operators to lose out on state money or give them an unfair increase if they aren’t growing at the same rate as the local district — all dependent on how administrators interpret the guidelines.

District leaders in both Memphis and Nashville have bemoaned the amount of education funding being siphoned off to charter schools. Nashville commissioned two independent studies in 2014 and 2015 on charter fiscal impact, both of which showed managing charter schools comes at considerable cost to the local district, largely because of the administrative tasks involved with approving and regulating them, as well as the fixed costs of school buildings and loss of student revenue.

"... There is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee."Office of Research and Education Accountability

To Shelby County Schools board member Chris Caldwell, the report raises more questions about the state’s funding formulas than about districts’ handling of charter school funds.

“The real hypocrisy is the state talking about the lack of transparency and having a funding formula like (Basic Education Plan),” said Caldwell of the BEP, over which the district is suing the state. “The state has never done anything with the funding of education to be transparent about what they’re doing.”

Will Pinkston, a Nashville school board member and frequent charter school critic, was skeptical of report’s timing and of legislation being prepared by the state Education Department.

“This is a well-orchestrated prelude to a legislative agenda,” he said. “…This is about helping the charter movement.”

Leaders of the Tennessee Charter School Center commended efforts surrounding the report.

“Transparency and collaboration remain critical throughout this process and we look forward to working with the local districts and state officials to help establish increasingly more effective systems and procedures for accounting and distributing funds,” said a statement from the center.

Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, a black advocacy organization that promotes school choice, said the report rightly points out areas to improve with charter school funding, but misses the ongoing struggle for equitable funding for traditional schools.

“Are we also funding our traditional schools to what they’re needing? And the answer to that is no,” Grinter said. “We’re not doing enough at the state level, but the constant question is still going to be what we’re doing as a whole to make sure schools are getting the right amount of funding.”

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.