Behind the Headlines – December 7, 2018

Behind the Headlines – December 7, 2018


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you.
Thank you. – Outgoing School Superintendent
Dorsey Hopson tonight on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, President
and Executive Editor of the Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight by Dorsey
Hopson, Shelby County Schools Superintendent,
outgoing I should say. Thank you for being here again. – Always a pleasure being here. – Absolutely, you were on in
August right before all this, maybe a month or so before
all this was announced. You are leaving at
the end of January going into the private sector after some six
years in your role– – It’ll be six years in January. – And you came in… There’s some current news to
go through, but I really wanted to get you on just to talk a
bit about that six year history because it was an
incredible history. You were General Counsel
at Shelby County Schools, no, excuse me, the old
MCS, Memphis City Schools when consolidation happened
and then the deconsolidation and then Kriner Cash
left and you were named Interim Superintendent and
then permanent Superintendent. – Yeah, let me first just thank the Shelby County School Board, the Memphis City School Board,
all our wonderful teachers and school leaders,
our great community for just really a
remarkable journey over the last six years. And you hit the
nail on the head. When I stepped into this
role, it was just utter chaos. We were in the middle of
the largest school merger in US history and we
had a superintendent on Memphis City Schools side, one on the Shelby
County Schools side and I was serving
as General Counsel, so when Kriner Cash
left, the board asked me to step into the role
until June 30, 2013 when the Memphis City
Schools was gonna be extinct and just help wind down. A couple months later,
John Atkin resigned– – He was the former
Shelby County Schools, the separate school
system, actually now the Superintendent of
the Collierville Schools. Go ahead. – Exactly, so then we were
tasked with really getting to opening day in August 2013
and it was just so much work that had to happen. If you remember, the
court had to get involved. There were a lot of lawsuits. The court actually appointed
a special master to make sure that progress was being made. From there, we picked a team
and we just buckled down and did the best we could
and I think that that one year while we were trying to put
the school systems together, we also knew the following year that we would
have the de-merger. – Right, it was a crazy time
from a news point of view, from somebody watching all this. We did a million shows on
that issue around that time and it was that you had merged. For people who forget or
maybe have moved to Memphis or their kids are only now in
the school system, but don’t remember how chaotic that was,
it wasn’t just the merger, which had happened when the
Memphis City School Board had basically given up its
charter, a legalistic maneuver to say no, here, take it. We’re gonna hand the school
system to the county. That ends, like you said,
court cases and the legislature gets involved, so even as you
were talking about that chaos of combining the school systems with being named the
interim, you know in the back of your mind or out of
the corner of your eye, we’re probably not
staying together. This is probably a
one year marriage, but we can’t necessarily
plan for that, right? It was just so uncertain and
you’ve gotta have the buses run on time and the
schools open every day. – That’s very well stated. I think also another piece of
it, we had to cut $100 million out of our budget,
the combined budget. So, you have all of this
uncertainty, you have all these lawsuits, you have
all this angst, all these bitter feelings
and you don’t have any money. [laughing] – It’s the
best of all worlds. – And we really were
sitting right in the middle. We were rounding third and
headed home in our Gates grant. Gates had invested a lot
of money around teacher effectiveness, so they
were trying to manage that. We were trying to manage
all these different things and I think that that’s why
we’re so proud of teachers, notwithstanding all of the
madness that was going on. We actually had a
pretty good year in terms of student
achievement that year. I think we were a
level five in terms of highest level growth
and did pretty well in the state framework
and then we de-merged and had to go through another
painful series of budget cuts. We were left with a lot of
debt, the Shelby County Schools was in terms of retirement
debt that we had to plan for when the de-merger happened,
but we got through that, too, and I think if I were
to point out some things I’m most proud of, I think
first and foremost, the ability to stabilize the district
from an operation and from a fiscal standpoint. We’ve been on a lot of shows
together and it seems like we started with that
$100 million deficit and then we found the
structural deficit of about $70 million, so
we’ve been able to fix that. We’ve been able to invest
in schools I think upwards of around $50 million
back into schools the last couple of years. So, when you go from $100
million deficits to surpluses and investments in schools– – In that roughly
five year period. – Exactly, that first
year we laid off 2,000 people, so you go
from laying off people to paying a living
wage to employees. When you go from laying
a bunch of teachers off to now being able to invest
in teachers and give teachers raises and things of that
nature, I’m just very proud of that work and it
didn’t come without pain. You think about one of the
things that’s always a hot topic is school closures. We closed 26 schools and that
was very emotional and tough, but I think now what you
see is some of the fruit of making some of
those hard decisions. We had to deal with the
ASD and the proliferation of charter schools and all that. – Let’s go through some of those
because the school closures alone was something that had
been talked about, politicians had said we’ve got
schools that are half full or a quarter full. People had talked about closing
them, but there would almost always be tremendous
uproar from the community, from alumni from those schools,
from parents and neighbors and people just
saying, well, not ours. Yeah, you gotta close
a school, but not ours. You need to invest in our
school, don’t close our school. Did merger, de-merger and the
budget deficit and the real fiscal crisis you talk about,
was that part of what just made it no longer could
people put off that decision to start closing
schools or was it… Why did that finally happen
where it had been talked about for many, many years
and not happened? – Well, I think that
the merger really gave some cover to do it. You remember that we had the
transition planning commission, this group of people
from the community to give us recommendations and they recommended
closing some schools. The board initially was
operating off the TPC’s plans– – Transition
planning committee. – Exactly, yes sir, but we
also had to do our own analysis and make sure that the schools that they recommended closing,
I always say let’s not close schools for the
sake of saving money, it should be for
educational value. So, when you look at schools
that don’t have as many kids and they can’t offer AP courses
and other course offerings, then it just made a lot
of sense, but it wasn’t without a lot of pain and
I’ll still say it here, we still have far too
many buildings even now. – How many more do you
think need to be closed? – Let me say it like this, we
closed 26 schools, but since that time, we’ve probably
added 35 charters. So, we probably added
another 40 or 50 schools– – Which most of which went
into existing buildings somewhere whether they were
former school buildings or central office or whatever. – Exactly, so you be agnostic as to who’s operating the
schools whether it’s SCS or ASD or traditional charters. We probably have 50 or so
facilities that we don’t need. – Really?
– Yeah, at the end of the day, – All we seem to have done at
some point is move the chairs, like we close a school,
then a charter comes in, they lease the
facility for months, they’re still not
operating at full capacity. We’re still trying to do
the maintenance and upkeep on those buildings. – So, 50, how many
total buildings, I know it’s a weird count because of all the
different entities, but SCS owns how many schools? – We operate 170 schools and then we have another
around 60 charter schools that we’ve authorized and then your ASD has
about 25 schools– – Somewhere in that mix of 250
give or take, you would think a fifth of those need
to be closed down. – Yeah, easily, and I’m
not gonna get out of here without bringing the board
some food for thought in terms of a plan. We obviously can’t close
charters and ASD Schools on our own, but the schools that we can recommend
consolidate, I’m gonna just bring a plan and I think that there are
probably 25 or so schools, but I also don’t wanna
just be about closing. I think what we learn
is if you close schools and combine schools, let’s
see if we can partner with the county commission. I think they’re up for it in
terms of building new schools because what that does is it gives kids better
learning environments, it helps you become more
efficient and it eliminates a lot of
our deferred maintenance. – Deferred maintenance,
we’ll get to that and we’ll come back for people. We keep talking about ASDs
and charters and the role of those and iZone and all that, but just the facility thing
because it does reflect a lot. You think about the
mayor and city council that the city’s initiative
Memphis 3.0 to remap the city and where population is
now and where it isn’t and how people have moved,
the schools are the empty schools, the underutilized
schools are a by-product of all that shift,
that shift to the east, but also in other shifts
that happen within the city. The deferred maintenance
alone is what? What’s the dollar amount
of deferred maintenance? – It’s roughly a half
a billion with a b, half a billion dollars. Just like your home,
if you have a roof that needed replacing 10 years
ago and you didn’t replace it and you try to patch it up
and you have water leaking and it causes mold and
messes your floors up, that is the reality
for many buildings in inner city Memphis. They were just
neglected for years and then you’re constantly
trying to patch them up. Recently, it got cold and
there were a lot of schools that had heat issues because
you have some boilers in some of these buildings
that are 75, 80 years old and when you have
this much maintenance, you’re just gonna
continue to have problems. – It is interesting and this
is my profession, the media and others, critics will
say when that happens, when school heater… Well, they should’ve known that. To some degree,
y’all do know that. [laughing]
– We do, yeah. [laughing] – It’s not that you
aren’t saying we’ve got a half a billion dollars
in deferred maintenance, we’re not unaware of the
problem and you are I assume bringing that to
your school board and to the funding entity,
the county commission on a regular basis saying
these are the things, these are the 75 year old boilers
and the leaking roofs. What can we do about it? – We spent I think about $35
million last year on upgrading HVAC and heating
systems, but again, you’re trying to boil the ocean. That’s a drop in a bucket
when you have so many needs and then in addition to that, we’re also building
two new schools. So, when you have maybe
$90 million to work with and you’ve gotta
dedicate 45 or 50 for continued construction
for new buildings, then you have $45 million or
so to do deferred maintenance, which is a big number, but at
the end of the day on top of– – Ten percent of what you need. – Exactly, and then we
just have to prioritize. Roof over here in bad shape,
roof over here in bad shape, when you look at all of the
factors, how many kids are here, is there a life safety issue, you just gotta do the best
you can with what you have. – When it was right, I think
after, I can’t remember it was right around the time
that you were last on, when the whole rat
thing happened. It got a lot of publicity
and I guess deservedly so. Sometimes it is horrible. How does your week
go when that happens? – Well, there’s
never a dull moment. I think we try to manage
through a lot of things. Sometimes things don’t
get to the media– – Like what, tell me what. [laughing] Give me a list of what
didn’t get to the media– – There are a lot of things
that happen on a daily basis and I think that when things
like the Kirby situation happened, they’re
magnified obviously. Just so you know and
we talk a lot about it, there was a nest inside
of an old car bay or auto mechanic bay where
they had stored a bunch of stuff and they basically
put the stuff in there in May and then not a lot of
activity in the school, so we were actually about
to tear down the greenhouse and build a new greenhouse. So, as they tear it down,
they disturbed the nest and the rats ran in the school. I think what happened
was the approach was let’s trap and let’s poison. And they poisoned and
rats were literally dying in the school, so then you
have God knows how many and that smell was just awful. So, that happened and again
if I were a Kirby parent, I wouldn’t be too happy. But I think they were
also very understanding. It just was one of those
really unavoidable situations. I hear people say we spend a
half a million dollars a year on pest control, so it’s not
like we just don’t do anything. – You’re not waiting
for an infestation and then dealing at that point. When that happens, like the
Kirby thing and it gets a lot of attention, a lot of
understandable anger from parents and students, did you
feel angry, did you feel sad, did you feel like
now this is a problem and this is a day in the life
and we’re just gonna fix it? – Well, I felt empathy first
of all for the students. If you’re a senior, your last
year, now you’re in this state of uncertainty and I spend
a lot of time with a lot of parents, so I felt empathy,
but also as the leader of the district, felt like
you feel responsible, too, because ultimately no
matter what happens, I’m responsible for it. So, you take those things
but then most importantly I’m always thinking about
how do we fix the problem. How do we fix the problem and make sure this problem
doesn’t happen again? Even a lot of the bad
things that have happened I think any good sign of a
leader is you’re gonna make some mistakes, you gotta
grow from those mistakes and then make sure you don’t
make those mistakes again. So, I think we’ve got some
strategies that will decrease the likelihood of a situation
like that happening again, but it may happen again. I can’t sit here and say that
stuff won’t happen again. – Another thing, looking back
I would assume a low point for you was and a point
of great frustration was Trezevant and
the grade fixing. Talk about what you learned
from that and what the district put in place to try to prevent
that from happening again. – Well, I guess the first
thing that was reiterated was that when you have 12,000
people who work for you, somebody’s doing something
wrong at all times. [laughing] – That’s pretty dark. – I say that jokingly. I think that we have some
outstanding people and I think 99.9% of people do exactly
what they’re supposed to do, but some people do wrong and
you have to anticipate people doing wrong and then when
you find out people are doing something wrong, then you have
to deal with them swiftly, you have to deal with them
fairly and then you have to always go back and
check your processes to make sure your
processes are together. I think one of the things
that we’ve changed now, a lot of our grade and
transcript changes now, they’re not manual. It literally was
you fill out a page. A lot of this stuff
is electronic now. We have a team of people who
go out and do random audits to make sure that the
stuff is happening right and then we get reports
now at Central Office and then we’ve transferred
a lot of the responsibility, the more responsibility
on the principal to make sure this stuff
is happening correctly. But I also wanna say when
something like that happens, it casts this wide cloud
like it’s widespread and I do think that obviously it was an
issue and it’s quite frankly what I would say had been
an issue for a long time. And I just think you have to
rely on people doing their best and being honest and also
put processes in place to make sure you can
inspect what you expect. – Trezevant, that was
in part a grade fixing about sports, right? It was making sure
kids stayed eligible. – Yeah. – In your six years, is there
too much emphasis on sports at the high school level? – No, I don’t think so. – And I say that as somebody
who runs a newspaper that covers high school sports. We have a dedicated high
school sports reporter. So, if there is a problem,
we’re a part of it, so I don’t wanna absolve myself. – No, I think for a lot
of our kids, sports offers an opportunity to
build camaraderie, to learn great citizenship and
also chances for scholarships and to escape your
circumstances. So, I think there is a lot
of pride in sports programs and I think it also keeps a
lot of our young men and young women focused, makes them stay
focused on their school work because they know
that if they don’t do what they’re supposed
to do in the classroom, there may be some consequences
on the playing field. I even think back on one of the
things that we thought about during the merger to
close the budget gap was to eliminate
middle school sports. But just the thinking and
the comments from parents about how this thing helps
my child to stay focused in school because
he or she knows there’ll be consequences
if he doesn’t. So, I think the positives
far outweigh the negatives. – You’re again up against those
sports programs cost money, AP, languages,
computers cost money and then you’ve got this
maintenance and deferred. I guess that was maybe
the thought on looking at middle school sports when things were so
financially desperate then. Of the priorities, that’s one
we cut, but you didn’t cut it. – Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s really a series of
trade-offs, which is why again I’m so proud of the fact
that now we probably have one of the most fiscally stable
urban school districts in the country. So, whoever comes in and
takes this torch of leadership is gonna be able to be
thoughtful about priorities and continue to make
investments as opposed to say how do I cut $100 million. – Eight minutes or so, we
talked about you’ve mentioned the charter schools, ASD, the
Gates money and it’s the thing we’ve done a lot of shows on
education over the nine years that we’ve been doing
Behind the Headlines in part because it affects
so many people. It’s the biggest line
item in the local budget. It just affects so much, how
people live, where they move, where they don’t move and so on. There’s been in addition
to the consolidation deconsolidation and then
the financial problems you’ve described,
simultaneous with all that was this huge amount of change and they were all happening
somewhat separately, but converged at the same time. So, some of what people I
mean I was reinforced by school board members and
other government officials and so on that’d be on the
show that what people sometimes would associate with
consolidation or deconsolidation was entirely separate. ASD wasn’t about consolidation
so much, ASD was a separate effort to address low
performing schools. Then the iZone comes up to
compete with ASD and you suddenly have this competition
and then you’ve got the mobility of teachers and of
students not just within Shelby County Schools, but you
could go to a charter school or you could even go out to
some of the suburban schools. I don’t know where I wanna go, but let me just
start with charters. Have charters been a
positive for education in the Memphis area? – I think some of them have. I think that of our 60 or so
charters, we probably have 20%, 25% that are outstanding and those schools ought
to continue to grow. But we probably have 25% or
so that just aren’t doing a good job and schools
like that should be closed. And then you have those
schools that are in the middle. The whole thinking around
charter was let’s be innovative, let’s give kids options, let’s
get better student outcomes. What I’ve noticed is in
many of the charter schools that I’ve visited, if
you go in a classroom, I don’t see a lot of innovation. And then, when you look at
the student outcomes, which is the reason we have charter
schools, when they’re not good, then I don’t consider
that to be successful. But on the other hand, again,
those 25% of schools though that are doing outstanding work, I think that’s very
positive in the community and they should be replicated. – Charters are closed. They don’t go on forever. What is that process and
there need to be changes to close charters
that aren’t working. – Yeah, a couple things,
there’s a new law. If you are a charter school and you are on the priority
list, then you’re closed as a matter of law. – Priority list being the
bottom 5% of performing schools. – Yeah, and then if you’re a
charter school and you don’t meet the terms of your
contract via performance or via operationally,
then we can close you. I think we closed maybe a
couple schools based on that. Charters are for 10 years,
so at the end of 10 years, they’re up for renewal or not. We recently had four charters. I think we renewed three
and non-renewed one, so those are really the ways
that they can be closed. – Just four or five
minutes left here. The school board will
pick your successor. – Yeah. – You’re not I assume
a part of that process, but your advice for your
successor will be what? – Be strong. I think there were
either two things. I guess the interim successor,
I think I would be focused on A, making sure you can
work well with the board. B, making sure you’re
getting this budget ready. It’s gonna be a big
budget season coming up and having a good relationship
with the county commission. And then C, making sure
that they can communicate to teachers that there’s
not gonna be a lot of change in the interim because if our
teachers in schools have known anything else because of
all the things you said, it’s been change after change
after change after change, so now we’re finally
getting stable. So, I think they’re gonna
be able to communicate that. I think that long
term, I think that the permanent superintendent
just needs to make sure they get good relationships
in the community and be very strategic in
terms of using our resources to get better student outcomes. – You talked about no more
change, but there is a change in administration at the
governor and a lot of turnover and new folks in
the legislature. You made some
noise and some news when you endorsed
Bill Lee for governor. It surprised some people. Why did you endorse Bill
Lee, who did ultimately win? – Well, I think at
the end of the day, sometimes you meet people and you have such
a strong connection and it just really
transcends politics. I was so impressed with
his vision for Tennessee. I was so impressed with his
faith and his strong belief in his family and we just
connected on a personal level. It was interesting all
the backlash that I got, but I think at the
end of the day, he’s gonna be a very
strong governor. He’s gonna continue
the process we’ve seen in our improvement in
K-12 and I look forward to seeing his administration
do a good job. – Lee Harris is the
new county mayor. The county commission has a
huge role obviously in funding, what have you heard from Lee
Harris in terms of change, or that you like or are concerned
about in terms of where the county support or lack of
support for schools is going? – Yes, I’m also very excited about Mayor Harris’
tenure as mayor. I think that we certainly
have had discussions about education. I’m so impressed with his
commitment to education and I think he’s gonna
do an outstanding job. A few of the changes thinking
around the education liaison, I think it’s gonna
be really good to make sure there’s
better communication between the school district
and the administration and I think his thinking
around providing better learning facilities
in inner city Memphis and focus on equity. I’m very excited
about that, too. – In just a minute and a
half left and we could do a whole show on this, but
you’ve talked about this on the show before. The percentage of SCS
students who live in poverty, it’s astronomical. – It is astronomical,
roughly about 80%, but then we always talk
about that 40,000 students who live in households
where the income is less than $10,000 a year
and it just creates significant barriers, not
insurmountable barriers, but just significant
challenges to make sure that kids are ready to learn
and have the opportunities and what they need to
be their very best. – I can remember my first
job out of college working in small town Connecticut
talking about schools. It was always controversial
because it was the biggest spending item in even a small
town and people who would talk about schools are just
where you go and you read, you write, you do your
math and you go home. A lot of SCS schools and
charter schools and so on, they are more than just
reading and writing. – Yep, that’s a safe place. It’s a place where kids may
get their only meal or two of the day and then I
think for those people who who think like that, assumes
the kids show up to school ready to read and
write and go home. But if you don’t have
what you need at home and you’re eight,
it’s not your fault and we just have to do our
best to make up the deficits. But I still think we have
to also be very honest about holding parents
accountable, too. I think that a lot of parents
for different situations and circumstances may not
be able to do the things we’d like to, but
then that doesn’t mean we give all parents a free pass because at the end of the day, parents are our
kids’ first teachers. – Alright, well, thank you. Thank you for being here
for the fifth or sixth time. We’ll go back and
count it some time. Good luck in your new endeavor. – I appreciate you. – And thank you, thank
you for joining us. Join us again next week.
Good night. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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