When I think of Memphis, Tenn., I think of resiliency. The vote to disband Memphis City Schools, seceding into six separate school districts, proved to be an egregious example of intentional segregation. That choice deepened existing opportunity gaps facing Tennessee’s highest-need students, while allowing school funding inequities to persist. But Memphis Shelby County Schools and its charter school leaders in this state refuse to back down on issues ranging from school funding policy to curriculum—and they know that changing the education funding formula can have lasting impacts.

In underserved communities like Memphis, schools get pitted against each other—for resources, for staff and student recruitment, even when they are part of the same local education agency. That resource-related competition dynamic is a byproduct of unjust education funding policy.

By elevating collaboration over competition, Afton has facilitated a cohort of Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) in Memphis for the past two years, including Gestalt Community Schools, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Journey Community Schools, and KIPP Memphis. Collaboration has enabled cohort members to feel more confident in their roles and better equipped to lead their schools’ finances. The four charter school CFOs in the Memphis cohort have built trust and learned the benefits of peer networking…because it’s ultimately a larger fight and one that they’re in together.  Especially in Memphis, it will require a collective effort to rise above systemic barriers.

Our cohort holds rich discussions that leverage research and data and support these leaders to problem solve and take action. But if I’m being honest, I’m learning as much from them, and their acumen and tenacity, as they are from us. These inspirational leaders are doing transformative work for our students, our schools and our communities. I’m honored to work with them.

-Carrie Stewart

Anika Baltimore is the CFO for Freedom Prep.

Norriese Rogers, the Chief Financial & Human Resources Officer for Gestalt.

Anika and Norriese both graciously shared more with us about their collaboration and how the cohort has impacted their work.

Can you tell us about the cohort in your own words?

Norriese Rogers: The cohort is amazing. It has given CFOs in our area not only a sounding board, but an opportunity to think about best practices and collectively problem solve. Many of us are facing similar challenges, such as how to effectively allocate ESSER funds. Before the cohort, I felt like I was doing this work in isolation. Now, I have a safe space to discuss what I’m experiencing and learn from other’s expertise and knowledge.

What motivated you to join the cohort?

Anika Baltimore: We have a responsibility to ensure the organization’s sustainability. The first part of every meeting is, “What are the hot topics?” where we discuss the most immediate challenges. It’s such helpful context to discuss this with folks in the same position and juggling similar responsibilities. Since I was new to working for Memphis schools, this cohort started at the perfect time for me as I suddenly had this incredible team I could rely on. I was connected through Afton, who did our financial model.

Can you tell us about your individual initiatives at your schools since joining the cohort?

Norriese Rogers

  • Motivating Educators: We used ESSER funds to implement bonuses for staff, where they can earn up to $2500 per quarter based on student interim assessment scores. This stipend extends to our entire staff, where janitors and secretaries can earn up to $1,000 for individualized or small-group tutoring. Not only is our staff really excited about this, since we’ve never had bonuses aligned to outcomes for students, we’re already seeing it have a real impact on achievement and growth.
  • Staff Retention: We had staff members going through significant challenges in connection with the pandemic. In response, we established a “Gestalt Cares” initiative, where we were able to support team members through initiatives like donating Paid Time Off (PTO) and supporting additional Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). This has had a positive impact on retention.
  • School Expansion: We’re currently working on an acquisition for our fourth campus, which would allow us to provide excellent educational opportunities to more Memphis children.

Anika Baltimore

  • Compensation Plan: We were able to codify and bring structure to our compensation plan. Based on the analysis, we were able to attain more stability, so our compensation was predictable and aligned to our school’s vision.
  • Benefits: We also improved our employee benefits package. We improved our plan and were able to incorporate holistic medical coverage, adopt a paid leave plan, and not drastically change our rates for employees.
  • Facility Financing: We recently closed on a $22 million Equitable Facilities Fund (EFF) financing to refinance, purchase our fourth and final building, and conduct needed renovations.

Are there any broader lessons or takeaways you’d share with other leaders that you have gained from this experience? If so, can you tell us about them?

Anika Baltimore: Anytime there’s an opportunity to collaborate and build a network of like-minded people who can push you and help you think about things you wouldn’t normally think about—take it. Whatever role you play, whatever you are, it gives you a set of eyes from people who also deeply get it.

Norriese Rogers: Use your resources. And this cohort has proven to be a tremendous resource. Although Afton brought us together, we email each other all the time seeking advice, commiseration, and input. We don’t have unlimited resources but this one group has proven, again and again, to be invaluable. Collaboration is key. Iron sharpens iron. I don’t really boast, but the folks in this cohort are the sharpest CFOs in this state. Without this cohort we wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn from each other, or even know each other.

Anika Baltimore and Norriese Rogers are two of five members of the Memphis CFO Cohort. The other three members include: Angela Carr (and formerly Kaleo Curtis) from KIPP Memphis and Matt Seigel & Randi Owens from Journey Community Schools. The group has met bi-weekly or monthly over the last two years.