For the first time in years, Shelby County Schools will start its budget process without a shortfall

Laura Faith Kebede, Chalkbeat Tennessee | 3/13/2017, 11:43 a.m.
When it comes to providing enough money to keep Shelby County Schools afloat, board member Stephanie Love likens Tennessee’s largest ...
(left) Stephanie Love (right) Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students at Snowden School in Memphis.

When it comes to providing enough money to keep Shelby County Schools afloat, board member Stephanie Love likens Tennessee’s largest school system to a ship that has been navigating life-threatening storms.

The beleaguered district has been battered by wave after wave of budgetary challenges: the massive merger of city and county schools in 2013; six municipalities pulling out to start their own school systems in 2014; yearly takeovers of Memphis schools by the state-run turnaround district; and annual closings of aging school buildings that have too many needs and too few students.

But this year, the wind-whipped ship appears to be sailing into calmer waters.

“This will be one of the best budget years since the merger and demerger …,” Love said. “This year we are able to sit down and strategize.”

Indeed, when administrators roll out their proposed spending plan on Monday, the district will start the budget process in the black for the first time in years.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the budget proposal will contain “unprecedented investments” for schools.

“After experiencing the largest school merger in history, we have stabilized our district and can shift our focus toward strategic investments in our schools,” Hopson said in a statement Friday. “Although we still believe that we are underfunded at the state level, we have worked diligently to maximize our limited resources.”

How Hopson and the school board will leverage the district’s newfound stability will be decided in the coming weeks as they target a budget vote for March 28.

The timeline for the process has been stepped up this year under Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson, now starting his second budget season with Shelby County Schools. He and Hopson hope to present an approved budget in April to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which holds the purse strings for local public schools.

Teacher training, supports for failing schools, and adding school counselors and behavior specialists are among items on wish lists for leaders who are weary of storms and ready to make proactive investments.

The shift in thinking is a welcome change from last year, when Hopson kicked off the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall on the tails of $125 million in cuts the previous year.

After cutting positions, winning at $22 million funding boost from the county commission and dipping into reserves, the district crafted a $959 million budget for the current fiscal year, including a 3 percent raise for teachers. The ante up from from the county was a crucial win for local schools because the increase set a higher baseline for funding levels for years to come.

But lest anyone gets too giddy about this year’s prospects, board Chairman Chris Caldwell is quick to remind that the district still remains woefully underfunded.

“We may have a healthy fund balance, but in the bigger picture we don’t have healthy funding,” referring to the district’s funding lawsuit against the state. The suit, which is winding its way through the courts, charges the state with shortchanging Shelby County Schools by upwards of $100 million every year.