Hopson: Schools Should Explore Head Start Takeover

By Bill Dries

As he secured a contract Tuesday, Sept. 17, that makes him superintendent of Shelby County Schools for the next three school years – possibly four – Dorsey Hopson said the school system is weighing a bid to take over the Head Start program now run by Shelby County government.



And school board member David Reaves suggested a second try at a referendum on a countywide sales tax hike to fund any start-up costs from the school system getting into the pre-kindergarten business.

All of the moves are the latest indication of a pared down seven-member school board that is moving quickly on multiple fronts, including settling the question of who will lead the school district through the initial years of the merger.

The school system and any other entities looking to take over the Head Start program county government is exiting have until Oct. 22 to apply for the $25 million federal grant.

Shelby County Schools has an existing memorandum of understanding with Shelby County Head Start for 82 pre-kindergarten classrooms.

Hopson’s preliminary sketch of the possibilities is that the school system wouldn’t run Head Start directly but would administer and contract with providers. That would include developing a curriculum that aligns with what the school system is doing when students enter kindergarten, especially in the areas of vocabulary and literacy. The school system has a goal of all third graders reading on grade level.

“We have the opportunity to be an overseer if you will,” Hopson said, acknowledging criticism of the current Head Start program by saying he would want to make sure Head Start “isn’t just a babysitter.”

Hopson described the financial impact on the school system’s operating budget “at first blush” as being “minimal.”

That’s when Reaves suggested, “Maybe we should go one step further. If we’re going to do it, why don’t we go the whole way?”

Under his scenario, revenue from a half-cent countywide sales tax hike would cover whatever the minimal impact is and what is left over could be pledged to roll back the Shelby County property tax rate.

Last November, voters in Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County voted down a half-cent countywide sales tax hike that was generally intended for “early childhood education.”

The proposal was crushed in part because critics said talk of using the money for pre-kindergarten was not an ironclad commitment.

Such a referendum can’t return to the ballot for a year under state law.

Meanwhile, the city of Memphis has a citywide sales tax hike for its own pre-kindergarten expansion within the city only slated for the November ballot. The city would contract with other agencies, possibly the countywide school system, for such an expansion, which would be governed by a board appointed by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and confirmed by the City Council. The remaining revenue would go to roll back the city’s property tax rate.

City leaders tried to get the referendum on the ballot before November but couldn’t logistically. They were trying to avoid a county referendum pre-empting their ballot question, which the Shelby County Commission can do under state law and did before with last year’s referendum.

The county school board took no action on Hopson’s preliminary work on a Head Start bid or Reaves’ idea of a sales tax hike. No resolutions were proposed Tuesday by either.

Hopson’s contract passed on a unanimous board vote.

It is a three-year contract that makes Hopson the superintendent of Shelby County Schools through Sept. 2, 2016, at a starting base pay of $269,000 a year.

The seven-member board approved the draft contract with Hopson, who had been general counsel to Memphis City Schools and then became interim superintendent of the two legacy school systems into their merger, less than two weeks after the board voted to pursue contract negotiations with Hopson.

The terms provide for a one-year extension through the 2016-2017 school year if the board takes no action by March 1, 2016. After the year’s extension, the agreement operates on a year-to-year arrangement.

Hopson is evaluated and based on that evaluation would get the same percentage pay raise as all other school system employees.