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VOL. 131 | NO. 43 | Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Hopson: Help ASD Improve, At Least for Now

By Bill Dries

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The state-run Achievement School District has a problem in how it engages with the public, especially in areas where it is about to take over a school.

DORSEY HOPSON

But Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson isn’t ready to say it is time for the state to pick a winner and a loser and fund either the ASD or Innovation Zone schools run by SCS.

Both school models are aimed at the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student achievement. Both school models offer more autonomy and more funding for teacher assistance and intervention with students who fall behind or are already behind.

“The reality is that we have so many schools that need additional support that Shelby County Schools … doesn’t have the resources to address all of our priority schools. In theory, the ASD would be a great partner,” Hopson said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines. “I think that we all agree that we’d like to have better results from the ASD and some of the charter operators. … I think that the main challenge that the ASD is having, in addition to the results, has been the perceived lack of engagement with communities. People can’t feel like in this work you are doing something to them.”

Criticism of the ASD accelerated first with a reshuffling of the state’s list of the bottom 5 percent of all schools in terms of student achievement and then with a Vanderbilt University study that concluded I-Zone schools operated by SCS outperformed the ASD over three school years. The study also concludes that three school years is not enough time to make long-term judgments about either model.

Hopson didn’t offer an opinion on proposed state legislation to either freeze the ASD as it is with no growth or abolish it entirely.

“I think that we don’t have a lot of time to worry about that,” he said. “I get the point. I think that to the extent they have schools that are doing well and they have some good practices, there is nothing wrong with saying let’s figure out how to make the ASD better.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Hopson estimates SCS faces a $100 million gap between revenues and expenses in its still-forming budget proposal.

“There’s really nowhere else to cut other than the classroom,” he said, noting the school system has cut $200 million in expenses from its budget over the last four fiscal years including a reduction in its central office staff and closing 17 schools.

Once a facilities study is completed, he expects to propose in the fall closing even more schools beyond the 2016-2017 school year.

The school system has gone from 145,000 students in the only school year of a single merged public school system that included the six suburban towns and cities, to its current count of 94,000 students. That’s a system that includes all public schools in Memphis and the unincorporated county as well as three in Germantown and one in Millington.

“The reality is we have about 27,000 more seats than students. And we have a structural deficit,” Hopson said. “We’re going to have to make some dramatic changes to our footprint really for our long-term health. … The reality is we cannot continue to operate low performing and under enrolled schools.”

In the next fiscal year, the school system will pass an additional $26 million in state revenue through to charter schools for a total of $50 million in funding for charters.

Shelby County government is the sole local funder of SCS.

And county commissioners go into the spring budget season with expecting a county budget surplus of some kind based on the $22 million more in revenue collections than expected at the end of the 2015 budget season.

“They’ve been very supportive of the work we’re doing. They ask some very good questions,” he said of commissioners and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. “But I think we’ve shown we have been efficient. … If we can make a strong and documented case based on data, there may be some willingness to support the school district further.”

Commissioners have said they want to see the school system up its $32 million-a-year payment on a $1.5 billion liability for employee and retiree benefits not including pension benefits.

Working with a benefits consultant with experience untangling the liabilities of Detroit and Wayne County, Michigan governments, Hopson said he will have some recommendations on that in the coming weeks that he described as “difficult and challenging changes.”

Hopson made a start at proposing cuts in health insurance coverage for retirees under the age of 65 last year that drew immediate opposition from teachers. School board consideration of the proposal was delayed as Hopson agreed to seek an actuarial expert on the changes.

By the next school board meeting in March, Hopson could have a proposed agreement on a new Crosstown High School. He has been negotiating with Christian Brothers University on a 500-student high school with an open attendance zone in the Crosstown Concourse development.

“The school board doesn’t want to have a bad financial deal,” Hopson said of the negotiations which include the impact of a Crosstown High on Central and East high schools in particular.

School board members have voiced concerns about such a new high school draining resources from those two high schools as well as others.

“I think it should be a net gain,” Hopson said. “We started doing something special with East High School. I still want to do that.”

The original version of this story included an incorrect amount for the county's estimated budget surplus. That amount has been corrected.

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