When the countywide school board votes next week on a resolution to endorse a half-cent countywide sales tax hike, the vote will not be unanimous.
And the resolution that backs the tax hike on the Nov. 6 ballot will not guarantee that the $30 million from the tax hike that goes to local education will be used for pre- kindergarten access for all children.
“This is simply additional resources to make tough decisions,” school board member Kevin Woods said Tuesday, Oct. 23, as the school board had a lively debate over his resolution at its work session.
Woods is the second board member to offer such a resolution that began with wording later taken out that would have specifically committed the money to pre-k or at least said it was the board’s intent to use the money for pre-k access.
School board member Jeff Warren, who floated similar resolutions last month, stood ready to make a specific commitment but both school superintendents counseled against it.
“We asked our administrators, ‘Do we tell people this money is definitely going to pre-k?’” Warren said. “We can’t because they don’t definitely know how they are going to use it. … The goal is to give some to pre-k but we can’t commit that to you because of the way the system works.”
The issue is an important one. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. in reversing his opposition to the sales tax hike said his backing of the tax is based on all $30 million in education revenue going for pre-kindergarten access.
“Once I saw that … they were prepared to earmark this portion of these funds to bring about early childhood (education) and this is guaranteed,” is how Wharton described the commitment backers of the ballot proposal made to him earlier this month.
“There are mechanisms other than the traditional ways of doing this,” he added at the Oct. 2 press conference. “That’s what my support is conditioned on. The voters have to know before I give one speech out on the campaign trail.”
The mechanism would be private foundation funding that comes with the caveat that it would be combined with the tax revenue only for pre-k programs. So far, that private funding mechanism hasn’t surfaced and early voting has been under way for a week.
Some school board members opposed to the resolution supporting the tax hike said they don’t necessarily think that pre-kindergarten access should be the top priority for the half of the revenue that goes to local schools by state law.
“I think it is fiscally imprudent for this board to commit to any kind of budgetary item,” board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. said. “If we’re faced with choosing between jobs and pre-k, I’m going to choose to keep the jobs of the custodians whose kids don’t have pre-k.”
Whalum referred to other choices the school board will be making soon on recommendations from the consolidation planning commission that include outsourcing the jobs of school custodians and transportation services as well as closing 20 schools.
“There are other things that may drive educational outcomes and based on limited funds we need to know what they are,” school board member David Reaves said, adding that suburban school children might be left out of pre-k access because of income guidelines for the program. “You cannot fund universal pre-k in this county. … You would leave out an entire segment of children with that thinking.”
Other board members countered that being for the tax is not being opposed to making cuts to close at least a $57 million gap between revenues and expenses for the merged school system.
“It’s not one or the other,” said school board member Tomeka Hart. “Everybody has a role to play and we have to have funds and we have to have cuts.”
If the sales tax hike fails at the polls, some board members suggested the alternative might be a county property tax hike that could be smaller if it worked in combination with a sales tax hike. Still other board members said they want to wait on tax decisions until they work on greater efficiency in the merged school system using funding presently on hand.