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VOL. 131 | NO. 106 | Friday, May 27, 2016

Shelby County Schools Wraps Up a Calmer, But Still Eventful, Year

By Bill Dries

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Given the last six years of historic change in public education locally, you could be forgiven if you thought of Friday’s half day of classes for Shelby County Schools as the end of an idyllic school year.

The last day of the 2015-2016 academic year for Shelby County Schools students caps an eventful year for SCS and its relationship with other public school systems in Shelby County. 

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

This was the first school year past the 2013-2014 merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems and the 2014-2015 demerger of Shelby County’s one system into seven school systems.

The path to those two seismic and conflicting shifts in public education began in late 2010 with the Memphis City Schools board’s decision to surrender its charter.

So the school year ending Friday may have been calmer than those events. But it was an eventful calm stirred Wednesday, May 25, by Shelby County Commission chairman Terry Roland.

Roland, during an otherwise amiable session with SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson and SCS board president Teresa Jones about their $954 million budget request, called on the city of Memphis to join county government in funding schools. Roland cited funding that the six suburban school systems get from their cities as well as county funding.

Shelby County government is the sole local funder of Shelby County Schools.

“The same people that are hollering about the suburbs – they are the same ones that pushed the surrender and pushed the merger,” Roland said. “To all those people that started that fight, that tore our community up … we’re more divided as a community than we’ve ever been. My sentiment to those people who supported the surrender and supported the merger is: How is that working out for you now?”

Hopson said the lack of city funding is “disappointing” and added that he had approached city leaders about matching the $10 million in private funding the school system has secured over the next three school years for its Innovation Zone turn-around model for failing schools.

City Hall was also criticized by county commissioners for pulling Memphis Police officers out of SCS schools in Memphis next year.

Commissioner David Reaves said the move goes against Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s promise to make city government “brilliant at the basics.”

“Every other mayor believes education is part of the basics except Mayor Strickland,” he said.

On the budget proposal, Reaves, a former SCS board member, said he will support more county funding for the school system.

“But really, it’s a matter of how much that is,” Reaves added.

Hopson touted SCS achievement results in its Innovation Zone turnaround model for failing schools in making the case for $27.4 million in additional county funding above the $391 million that county government provided in the current fiscal year.

The additional money includes $10.8 million for pay raises for level 3, 4 and 5 teachers – the highest levels bestowed on teachers in terms of growth in student achievement.

“Our teachers are getting after it,” Hopson said. “But our teachers are beat down.”

The school system is also still losing students after the demerger, something Hopson has been more vocal about battling in recent months.

He expects SCS to lose about 10,000 students in the next five to six years from its current 96,000 students.

The system opened the year last August without eight schools, part of a group of 21 SCS has closed since the merger school year. That’s counting four charter schools and the Messick Adult Education Center the school board voted just this month to close in the 2016-2017 school year. The charter operators can appeal their closings to the state, and some are.

The number of schools closed also assumes the board will vote next week to follow through on Hopson’s recommendation to close Carver High School.

By Hopson’s estimate, SCS currently has about 27,000 more seats than students.

He told the commission that by the fall he will have a plan to close 15 to 20 more schools over the next three to four years.

The school year that ends Friday has been a crucial year in the competition between the I-Zone schools and the state-run Achievement School District, two solutions for the worst performing schools in student achievement.

The competition was heightened by a Vanderbilt University study that compared student achievement results between the two groups of schools across three school years.

The study concluded the I-Zone schools were outperforming the ASD schools. But it also concluded it was too early to say definitively that it was a long-term trend.

Nevertheless, critics of the ASD who were already becoming more vocal cited the study as they lined up to fight another tier of schools the ASD would take over in the 2017-2018 school year.

Incoming ASD superintendent Malika Anderson argued that the prospect of an ASD takeover has put some urgency by SCS into turning around failing schools that have been failing for several years.

The ASD will add Memphis schools in August. But it won’t in the 2016-2017 school year, a decision state officials linked to problems with the new TNReady student achievement tests.

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