The Shelby County Commission and Shelby County Schools leaders eased into what is likely to be the most difficult discussion of county government’s budget season – funding the county’s school district in the first academic year of the demerger.
County Schools board members took a budget plan to the commission that emphasized funding for programs to improve student performannce.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
In committee sessions Wednesday, April 9, the first in a series of budget sessions on schools spending, the commission and schools leaders sidestepped the overall budget ask, at least for now.
Instead, school board chairman Kevin Woods went to student performance and how the school system would use specific amounts of funding to accomplish specific goals by the year 2025.
“We know we are facing some deep challenges, and as taxpayers, we can’t do it alone,” Woods said at the outset.
He began by saying $5 billion was spent in 2010 on poverty programs in Shelby County, an amount that is five times the current school system budget, taking into account county, state and federal government funding for both.
The school system effort includes spending:
– $7.2 million on improving reading and language arts in kindergarten through third grade to meet the goal of having all third-graders read at grade level. Approximately 30 percent of third-graders in the school system currently read at or above grade level.
– $1.2 million to extend the school day and increase teacher pay in the four newest Innovation Zone schools, underperforming schools that have more flexibility and in which new principals are chosen to fresh-start the schools with as much as half of the faculty coming to the school new. The four new Innovation Zone schools in the upcoming academic year will make a total of 17 I-Zone schools, including the first high schools to join the program – Hamilton, Trezevant and Melrose.
– $5.9 million for a “blended learning” pilot program in 16 schools in which students are given digital technology – laptops in high schools and tablets in lower grades – loaded with a special curriculum for those students to continue learning away from the school.
Wednesday’s session wasn’t without its pointed questions and observations.
“We don’t have another decade,” commissioner Mark Billingsley said as he reviewed ACT test scores for college readiness the school system hopes to improve by replacing its current test-prep contracts with another option.
With $90 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative scheduled to run out in 2015, Billingsley questioned whether the school system has seen “improved outcomes” in the partnership.
Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the outcomes were better but that the school system has a “long way to go.”
“I think that the evaluation model itself, there are some concerns with it,” Hopson said, noting that some teachers complain the evaluations are unfair and being used to get rid of experienced teachers.
“But the reality is that 80 percent of our teachers under the evaluation model that we now have are rated four or five, which means they are above expectations or significantly above expectations. When you see that, but you see (student) achievement, you know there are problems with the evaluation. When you try to tighten down and make sure it’s aligned, we’ve had pushback from a lot of people.”
The goal of paying high-level teachers as much as $80,000 to $100,000 a year to teach in low-performing schools is also a work in progress.
“You want to take those teachers and you want to place them in the areas where there is the most need,” Hopson said. “The reality is … teachers say, ‘I’m a great teacher. I’m at White Station. I don’t really have the incentive to go to Melrose, notwithstanding the money.’”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Justin Ford said the school system was wrong to close any schools, especially in his district.
“I am taking heat right now for schools being closed,” Ford said.
Ford had urged the school board to keep Westhaven Elementary open. The board instead voted to close the school but seek funding from the commission to build a new school on the Westhaven site for not only its students but the students at nearby Fairley and Raineshaven elementary schools.
Woods was among those on the board who challenged Ford to follow through and vote – and seek additional commission votes – for the estimated $12 million in funding to build a new school.
Ford did not seem to be willing to do that at Wednesday’s committee session.
“You must remember this – that the people are who you represent. You don’t represent this budget book,” Ford said. “You represent the constituents who elected you, and when they ask you to do something, you must do it. … There should never have been a school closed. I walked into that meeting on behalf of the people. They wanted results, and we walked out with nothing.”