Metro Schools superintendent Shawn Joseph was asked to defend his decision to cut the reading recovery program during his public budget hearing Wednesday with Mayor David Briley. The literacy initiative costs more than $7 million a year, employing 83 reading specialists to work with small groups of struggling readers.
Joseph, who is a reading specialist himself as a former middle school teacher, says the payoff hasn't been worth the expense. An internal analysis came to this conclusion. And in the last couple of weeks, he says an outside study from Hanover Research confirmed his beliefs.
"In a district where three out of four students are not reading on grade level, we'll never scale the program the way it was designed," he told the mayor, who had asked why the cuts were made at the "last minute."
Joseph plans to put those 83 teachers — which he considers some of the district's best — back in the classroom, where he believes they can have a broader impact. If a school wants to keep its reading specialist, the local principal would have to find money in the school's budget to fund the position.
The amount that would be saved by this cut is roughly the same as a shortfall from a loss in state funding. Briley pressed for a better explanation for how Metro Schools ended up in a bind. The district knew in October that enrollment was down by 2,000 students from projections. Administrators blame gentrification and a loss of immigrant students because of rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C.
The district only started trying to reduce costs in the last few weeks.
"Don't you, on that day, just immediately assume that we're going to get that percentage less in terms of total funding from the state?" he asked chief operating officer Chris Henson.
"Well it's not quite that simple," Henson said. "It's a very complex formula," referring to how the state determines how much money to send to school districts.
Henson says most of the shortfall was a result of missing out on money the state gives districts that are growing.
"We believe that this year was an anomaly," he said. "With 15 consecutive years of enrollment increase where projections have been very close to enrollment actuals in total for those years, this was — as I said earlier — a surprise, and we hope that it's an anomaly."
But no growth is expected next year either. Henson was encouraged by the mayor's office to be more conservative about estimates.
The school district's budget hearing was Briley's last before presenting his budget to the Metro Council for final approval. It was also one of the most contentious. School officials admitted they might even need to request some money to get through the current year. At more than $900 million, the district represents the largest agency in city government by far.
- 2.5 percent raise and step raises for all employees
- Elevated pay for pre-k classroom assistants because of recruiting difficulty
- 4 new teacher recruiters in the central office