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And the Taxpayers . . .Eat Wedding Cake?

February 25, 2013

Teachers, taxpayers, commissioners, parents, and politicos are all atwitter about the upcoming shotgun marriage between the Memphis and Shelby County school systems. There are a million moving parts to meshing the two systems, including policies, procedures, personnel, philosophies and – oh, yes, the pupils. Bless their hearts, we do tend to forget that it’s supposed to be about them.

Instead of political posturing and public panic, what the students need from the school board and Shelby County Board of Commissioners is leadership. Wise, mature, adult leadership – alas, a too-rare quality in our local elected officials.

The latest pre-marital drama concerns funding the lifestyle of the newlyweds. Notwithstanding efforts and appeals during early budget talks to hold the anticipated deficit for the 2013-2014 unified school system budget to $60 million, the school board submitted a budget to the County Commission (which authorizes school spending) with a request for a $145 million increase over last year’s funding. [For a detailed version click here.]

Bridezilla – oops, I mean the school board –  wants that “World-Class” educational system (envisioned by world-class hired guns from the Boston Consulting Group and incorporated into the recommendations of the Transition Planning Commission) now, Year One of the marriage. No pain, no waiting, no struggle; no hard decisions about closing schools or laying off janitors. “We want it all and we want it now!” the fifteen members who carried the vote proclaimed through their proposed Kardashian wedding fantasy budget. “Who cares what the starving peasants – uh, taxpayers – have to pay? Let them eat wedding cake!

marie biggest

[To his credit, unified school board Chairman Billy Orgel not only voted against the WLILOB (Wish List in Lieu of Budget), but said to reporters, “I think it’s unrealistic, I think it’s irresponsible, I think it’s wrong to do to our staff and sets a bad tone for us as a board.” Other adults in the room who voted “You’ve Got to Be Kidding: NO.” were Kevin Woods, Chris Caldwell, Betty Mallott and Mike Wissman.]

Of course, as is usual around here, the County Commissioners aren’t without fault in the matter. They pressured the school board to submit their budget several months early, too early to have a clue about how much money might actually be available. (Suggested motto for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners: Bullying is our business. Our only business.)

Back in the Real World, here’s a look at needs and resources.

Property tax revenues – a primary source of funds for Shelby County and our schools – will decrease due to a budget-cut-artwork-580x360decline in assessed property values. Tax assessor Cheyenne Johnson reported on February 23 that, on average, property values have dropped 4.63 percent from the last assessment conducted in 2009. The current tax rates of $4.02 per $100 of assessed value (for Memphis properties) and $4.06 (for properties outside of Memphis) will have to be raised to around $4.38 to maintain current property tax revenues. (The $4.38 figure is based on a full 5% reduction.)

The 4.63% drop is actually good news. Mayor Luttrell and others were braced for a ten percent reduction.

$68 MM school funding by City of Memphis ends June 30, 2013.

The City is still trying to weasel out of the $55 million it owes to the schools.

Court-ordered juvenile justice system reforms will increase the County budget by $4.5-6.5 MM annually, according to County Commission chairman Mike Ritz.

pie dollars At best, a countywide property tax increase would net the school board only $28-45 million of the $145 million requested according to commissioners Mike Ritz and Chris Thomas, quoted in Sunday’s Commercial Appeal. Those amounts represent a 9.99% increase in the current tax rate, which would raise approximately $60 million before allocations to other county priorities. The Shelby County charter requires any motion to raise taxes by 10 percent or greater be approved by at least nine of the 13 commissioners. The votes aren’t there for a 10% hike, according to Commissioner Thomas and Mayor Luttrell, but a  9.99% increase can be accomplished by a simple majority vote.

According to local bloggers Schooling Memphis (anonymous) and Schools Matter (Jim Horn),  the anticipated $212 million impact of enrollment shifts to charter schools and ASD schools over the next few years is not being adequately discussed or factored into the budgeting process.

And then, there is the specter of school vouchers, soon to be considered by the Tennessee State Legislature and certain to have a deleterious effect on the unified public system.

What happens next in the budgeting process is certain to include hard choices and angry voices.

Mayor Luttrell hopes that he can get approval for a first-time line-item budget. That would help, but it won’t solve the school board’s fundamental problem.

Our hope is that our esteemed school board commissioners will put on their big people pants and start making responsible decisions based on reason and what the numbers will allow. We need leadership, people, not gossamer dreams of instant fixes.

SCS parents and teachers have loudly voiced their fears that the forced marriage with MCS would do harm to a school system that was stable and thriving by comparison. Looking at proposed cuts in SCS teacher benefits and student-teacher ratios, it appears those fears were justified.

So, how about starting with preserving what isn’t already broken? Focus on keeping what’s healthy, strong. Make the consolidated system fair and efficient and able to retain good teachers and good students (who will quickly flee if it isn’t an improvement over MCS). Then, and only then,  create a plan of incremental improvements that will take us, year by year, toward a world-class goal.

That’s our idea for a plan. What’s yours?

school bank

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2013 4:12 pm

    I agree with the “If it’s not broken…” saying. SCS is not broken. They have wonderful teacher to student ratios that I would love to see continue. Unfortunately with the merger of the two systems I believe that ratio will turn into something that will not benefit the students. The students should always come first. The transition team, I feel, has lost sight of that.

    • February 26, 2013 10:50 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Holly. Maybe we should make up signs for the school board’s meeting room: It’s the students, Stupid!

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