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VOL. 132 | NO. 53 | Wednesday, March 15, 2017

SCS Enters Budget Talks With Some Flexibility

By Bill Dries

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At this time of year, Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson confesses that he’s usually not feeling quite this optimistic.

DORSEY HOPSON

“It’s a weird situation for me because I’m usually very frustrated and depressed,” Hopson said Monday, March 13, as he unveiled a budget proposal that goes to the school board first and then the Shelby County Commission.

All have an eye on the July 1 start date of the new fiscal year. But SCS officials start earlier and are apprehensive earlier because they rely on funding from Shelby County government to fund the school system’s budget.

But after several budget seasons of rolling with historic changes in local public education, Hopson has reached a point where he feels like he is able to do more with the budget than react to changes.

“When you look at our needs, I think we are still woefully underfunded by the state,” Hopson said. “I don’t want to paint the picture that we have all we need. I think we’ve gotten smarter about doing the best with what we have.”

But Hopson’s strategic push for more county funding last spring in a broad appeal to county commissioners was essential to the more stable budget situation as a new spring approaches.

Hopson and his staff didn’t reject any call from the commission or mayor to review spending in one area, even though county government only funds a general dollar amount for the SCS budget.

County government has no line-item control of the school system’s budget and the school system has no taxing authority or ability to raise tax revenue independently.

“We went into this having a much more stable, robust funding stream that we could count on,” Hopson said of the increase in county funding a year ago. “Over the last four years, we are consistently vigilant about what we cut. … It’s just taken time to figure out in this huge billion-dollar budget what are the wise spends, what are the spends you are getting good ROI (return on investment) on.”

Hopson’s $945.2 million budget proposal is $23.1 million less than the school system’s current operating budget and includes $47 million in funding for his new set of 19 “critical focus” schools and other school turnaround measures including a pay raise for teachers and hiring more classroom interventionists and specialists.

The “critical focus” schools are schools that would otherwise be closed or consolidated with other schools.

Hopson is also proposing to use $15 million in the school’s surplus or reserve fund, which currently stands at $110 million, to fund broader school turnaround measures.

Those measures include “summer learning academies” with certified teachers at 20 schools starting this summer, $600,000 in retention bonuses to retain teachers at “critical focus” schools and the phased-in transition of East High School to a T-STEM school – a grades 9-12 optional school with a science, technology, engineering and math curriculum with an emphasis on transportation and logistics. Some of the measures are funded with grants.

The $47 million package represents a move by Hopson to go broader than the set of Innovation Zone schools that target the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student achievement. Hopson’s goal is to reach SCS institutions in the bottom 10 percent and prevent slippage in student achievement gains at other schools.

“We really worked really hard to come up with a budget that reflected an almost unprecedented commitment to investing inside of our schools,” he said.

There are still changes out there to plan for, including the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act – or ESSA. Grants for Innovation Zone schools and other grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation run out in the new fiscal year.

But as Hopson took his budget proposal to the school board Monday, he said he felt like he was able to get “academic lift” in his budget proposal.

The I-Zone schools, which have helped the school system make the case for additional county funding, will continue even though the grant is running out.

SCS chief financial officer Len Johnson says the I-Zone positions for rapid intervention with students who fall behind and other classroom help have been moved to the school system’s general fund. And the new ESSA standards come with new federal funding that doesn’t wait on failing schools to be picked for either I-Zone status or to be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District.

“With the new ESSA law there will be additional funding for priority schools,” Johnson said, although the school system doesn’t have an exact dollar amount just yet. “But we do see that there will be some kind of sustained money to I-Zones even though grants will go away.”

ESSA also requires that conventional school districts get the first shot at turning around a failing school before the ASD takes over such a school.

The budget reflects a funding loss from an estimated loss of 900 students. There are also non-recurring expenses the school system won’t have in the new fiscal year including investments in technology.

The loss of 900 students in the new school year amounts to 94 fewer classroom teaching positions.

But Hopson said Monday he is proposing that the school system not layoff any teachers. Instead, teachers could become classroom interventionists. And 60 of the 94 classroom positions are already vacant.

The cost of a no-layoff pledge is $2.3 million.

“We would rather keep teachers on and match them to assigned vacancies as they come up,” Hopson said, citing inevitable openings that come up during a school year. “We’ll have a place for all of our teachers. … We’ll just make a commitment to them now that we will keep them.”

The school system is hoping for a state budget amendment that would increase state funding to SCS by $9 million to a total of $485.3 million.

The one caveat in the budget numbers at the outset is the possible passage by the Tennessee Legislature of a school voucher bill by state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown.

If that happens, the school system estimates it would lose another 1,000 students in the school year that begins in August, as well as $8.6 million.

Hopson hopes to have a vote on the budget by the school board in April and take the plan to the Shelby County Commission in May, with approval by the commission before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 76 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 83 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 8 19 170
BUILDING PERMITS 190 277 3,028
BANKRUPTCIES 39 73 691
BUSINESS LICENSES 12 22 298
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0