The countywide school board is asking the Shelby County Commission for $145 million in extra funding for the first fiscal year of the schools merger.
The “ask” is a preliminary number that goes to a county commission budget retreat scheduled for Feb. 23. It is extra funding beyond the $361 million county government currently provides both school systems.
If the commission informally rejects it, as Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and County Commission chairman Mike Ritz have predicted, the school board would then begin preparing a specific budget to take to the commission for funding in April – the traditional budget season in local government.
Administrators and leaders of both school systems that merge effective July 1 recommended $65 million extra in county funding in the new fiscal year.
The plan was a rewrite of an earlier plan that alarmed parents of children in both school systems and prompted numerous board members to say it focused too much on balancing the budget and not enough on classroom needs.
Luttrell and Ritz were also “alarmed” by the $80 million to $90 million gap between revenues and expenditures in the first draft saying it wasn’t realistic enough and avoided tough choices.
The plan presented Tuesday, Feb. 12, restored general education teaching positions in elementary and middle schools as well as assistant principal positions and restored vice principal positions at any high school with 1,500 students or more.
It also would have nixed any school system expansion of pre-kindergarten and made further cuts to central office staff as well as outsourcing custodial and transportation services.
Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken told the board he and interim Memphis City Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson needed a dollar figure to take to the budget retreat.
Aitken also warned that time is short.
“Pushing this and getting into negotiations with the County Commission … and going back and forth – I worry about how productive that conversation is going to be,” he said as he referred to the first day of classes for the merged school system. “As we keep pushing and delaying … Aug. 5 is rapidly approaching and many, many decisions have to be made moving forward.”
But many board members argued the board should begin negotiations asking for something closer to what they feel like they need.
“I am having trouble figuring out how we as a community can expect to have a better product for less money and not taking that particular information to our county commission,” said school board member Jeff Warren. “We tell them what we need. If they tell us we can’t give you that – then and only then should we as a board walk away and say we are going to make cuts there and there.”
School board chairman Billy Orgel said the commission has no line item control over the school system’s budget. It only approves an amount of total county funding.
Others on the board said they couldn’t support a budget that cut staffing levels at what are now county schools as the levels were raised in what are now city schools.
“This is coming at the expense of Shelby County kids,” said school board member David Reaves. “If we’re going to do something, I think we need to make sure we preserve what we have.”
“I think we all need to ground ourselves in a little reality here,” Orgel countered, warning the county property tax rate necessary to fund such a schools budget would prompt homeowners to leave the county if it ever got nine votes on the county commission.
“We won’t have anybody left to educate. We’ll have a combined system that teaches nobody,” Orgel said. “If we’re not reasonable, everybody else is going to turn their back. It’s going to be thrown back at us and we’re going to be back here in three days.”
School board member Tomeka Hart, however, countered that the discussion is about more than just giving the two superintendents a dollar amount for bargaining.
“Are we really just looking for a number?” she asked. “We could have done this by email.”
School board member Joe Clayton was among those who argued the board should approach the talks as bargaining.
“Whatever the number is, that is going to be the most you are ever going to get,” he said as the board discussed a $75 million “ask.” “Before you vote to go $75 million, you better be sure it’s the most you need for a world class school system.”
Orgel again rejected the idea that what comes next will be much of a negotiation.
“Some people might be doing it to make a point, but I think it’s a bad point,” he said. “In my mind, I think it’s unrealistic. I think it sets a bad tone for us as a board. It makes a point and that’s fine. But it’s a waste of time.”