The first and very preliminary draft of a budget for the first year of the consolidated public school system in Shelby County was probably dead on arrival this week.
Even before a public hearing Monday, Jan. 4, that drew several hundred people, countywide school board members spent most of the day reviewing the numbers with the transition steering committee – a group of top administrators from both school systems.
Shelby County Schools assistant superintendent Tim Setterlund, who heads the steering committee, stressed that the budget priorities are tentative but need to be a bit firmer this month as the school board takes some general idea of a schools budget direction to Shelby County Commissioners later this month.
“We will still be looking at changes in the budget,” Setterlund said several times. “These are tough decisions – tough work.”
So were the comments from the 33 citizens who spoke on the first of two nights of public hearings.
“You need to go back to the well,” said Jason Haluska of Collierville. “Do not cut education. … We don’t want a world-class school system. We want what we already have.”
After the Monday session and public hearing, many on the 23-member school board were ready to see another draft that is radically different from the proposal that would increase pupil teacher ratios, reduce teaching assistants and clerical support as well as assistant and vice principals.
“It definitely has to go back,” said school board member David Reaves. “We want to bring the entire district up to Shelby County standards. But to do that is going to cost money. It’s going to cost a lot of money. So far, I think we have the mandate to give (the County Commission) the numbers and see what that looks like.”
Several parents said they would support additional funding, particularly to restore $20.4 million in school staffing cuts in the budget’s first draft.
“I think the overwhelming message you’ve heard is cuts at the school level are unacceptable,” said Ken Hoover, a parent of three county schools students in Germantown.
Hoover was elected to the Germantown municipal school system board last year before a federal court ruling abolished it and other suburban school boards.
Hoover also noted that much of the revenue the consolidated school system loses in its first year is revenue the Memphis City Schools system was getting as he made the point that cuts could be made in places other than those selected by the steering committee.
“Almost all of that revenue is revenue Shelby County Schools never had,” he said. “There’s a logical disconnect if we had more money coming in but less money making it to the schools. … I think a lot of Memphians who voted to surrender the charter voted for that efficiency – voted to put that money in the classrooms.”
But some board members are also concerned about making cuts to the budget proposal they take to the Shelby County Commission before they have a feel for what the commission is willing to fund.
They think that politically the school system might be locked in to a bare bones budget anyway.
“It didn’t have all of the elements that the (school) board really wanted to hold on to – the things that make this a very good system on both sides,” said school board member Reginald Porter Jr. “If we have to make additional cuts, we do that. But ask the Shelby County Commission to fund the things that are most important to us. And if they can’t, then we make the cuts but we don’t want to make the cuts before we ask.”
Porter, Reaves and school board member Martavius Jones each said they don’t think it is realistic for the school board to ask the County Commission for the $200 million that is cut in the tentative budget.
“But it still gives us an idea to take to the community to say this is what a world-class school system would require,” Jones said. “Are you willing to make at least a partial investment or to have the first steps of a plan to get us there, whether it’s five years or its 10 years?”
Reaves also floated the idea of a phased-in approach to keeping some of the items.
“I don’t think we can go in there with a $200 million price tag and say let’s raise taxes year one,” Reaves said. “It has to be a thoughtful phased-in implementation, I would say over three to five years, in which every year we implement pieces of the plan and then we go back and we re-evaluate whether we need more revenue to make it happen. I just don’t think it can happen year one and it be successful.”