Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson meets this week with the newly installed superintendents of the county’s still-forming suburban school systems to talk details and cooperation.
The talks are part of a complex relationship forming among the school systems and the emerging structure of a county with seven public school systems. On another level, Hopson will be looking for some certainty on the start dates of the municipal school district for his own planning purposes in the 2014-2015 school year. And he is preparing a fast-track plan to specifically compete to keep the best teachers and principals in those suburban schools in Shelby County Schools.
“We’re working on a strategy and I’m going to roll it out very quickly on how do we recruit and retain the highly effective teachers who work in schools that are in the county that are in the municipal school districts,” Hopson said. “We’ve got to do a budget. We’ve got to recruit teachers, recruit administrators, recruit students all the while not really being certain what the district is going to look like.”
While the settlement agreements with the six suburban school systems have decided which school buildings stay in Shelby County Schools and which go to suburban schools along with their students, Hopson still sees uncertainty on a start date.
“I know the political will and determination is there for all of the municipalities to be ready and be open in the fall and I wish them well and we are going to work with them to help them all we can,” he said. “But we still have to envision some scenarios where what if one or two or three or four or five or six of them aren’t ready. … We’re going to have to quickly pivot back to educating those students.”
The suburban superintendents just started their daily duties last week as the only employees of their school systems in one-person offices supplied by the suburban governments.
The other uncertainty is the level of per-pupil funding, which will be a key element in planning the budget for Shelby County Schools in the 2014-2015 school year. Hopson tentatively estimates the start of the suburban school districts would mean a loss of $50 million in per-pupil funding the school system now gets. That is, if all six suburban systems open for classes in August.
Hopson acknowledges discussion among some Shelby County Commissioners who have indicated they might try to cut per-pupil spending. Shelby County government is the only local funder of Shelby County Schools but also is a partial local funder of the suburban school systems along with the suburban towns and cities.
“Whatever they give us from the per-pupil expenditure is what the municipal districts are going to get,” Hopson said. “The reality is the municipal districts are probably going to need more from a start-up standpoint. So either the County Commission is going to have to be willing to do a little more for them and we’ll benefit. Or those municipalities are going to have to pick up all of the start-up cost and extra costs associated with these districts. The politics of it will be interesting.”
In the second half of the current school year Hopson says he and his staff will also focus on a specific plan of action toward the school system’s goal of having every third grader reading at grade level. That plan will be the top priority of the budget the school system is now forming to take to the County Commission in the spring for funding.
“We’re about to pivot toward what people are calling the de-merger,” Hopson said. “And I hope that we can still make sure we spend a fair amount of time talking about student achievement. … Literacy is a big problem in Memphis and Shelby County.”
He cited achievement test scores that show only 28 percent of third graders in the consolidated school district can read on grade level.
“These numbers are just abysmal. We need help from the faith-based community, the corporate community, the philanthropy community,” he said. “I think we have a unique opportunity to show the nation what happens when everybody hitches together and pulls in the same direction.”
The effort will show up in the budget Hopson is now assembling with the other factors including less per-pupil money and no political will to raise county property taxes the year after a tax hike for education. Hopson will seek private philanthropic funding as well.
It will also include volunteer efforts to read or tutor students with a curriculum already prepared for such a volunteer effort as well as the machinery to perform background checks on those who volunteer to work in the schools.