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VOL. 128 | NO. 27 | Friday, February 08, 2013

Luttrell ‘Alarmed’ Over Budget Numbers

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell meets Friday, Feb. 8, with Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken to look over the still tentative budget plan for the consolidated school system that debuts in August.

LUTTRELL

The meeting between Luttrell and Aitken caps a week that included two days of public hearings the school board held this week on tentative consolidation budget figures. The figures reflect $80 million to $90 million in new funding for the recommendations.

“I’ve been greatly alarmed over the last few days to see the figures that have come from the board of education,” Luttrell told the Memphis Kiwanis Club Wednesday, Feb. 6, in a state of the county speech. “The figures that we’ve heard in the last two days would require a (county property) tax increase of roughly 30 percent. There are not nine votes on our County Commission to raise taxes that much. We will not see a tax increase of 30 percent.”

Any property tax hike at 10 percent or above requires a nine-vote, two-thirds majority. And Luttrell believes a recertified tax rate simply to produce the same amount of revenue for county government after the 2013 property reappraisal will be about half of the 10 percent.

The county tax rate of $4.02 per $100 of assessed property value is likely to go up in the recertified tax rate that by state law is a rate that would produce the same amount of revenue the current property tax rate generates for Shelby County government. The recertified rate is expected to go up to do that because of an expected drop in property values as reflected in the 2013 countywide property reappraisal.

“We think that’s going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.20 just to raise the same amount of revenue,” Luttrell said after his speech. “That is half of the 10 percent that requires nine votes. With a 10 percent increase, half of that will be consumed with just maintaining the current level of services.”

After the two days of public hearings and a day-long briefing Monday by the transition steering committee, several countywide school board members said this week they were sending back the tentative budget numbers for an overhaul.

Luttrell’s concern is that the priorities in a budget aren’t where they should be at this point, although he said he wants to review the projections and estimates in this week’s presentations carefully and still has questions about some parts.

The steering committee of top administrators from both school systems recommended against a key planning commission recommendation to close 21 Memphis schools for an estimated savings of $20 million.

The steering committee disputed the savings number and the school system is now weighing the closing of four schools in the fall, which will mark the beginning of the first school year with a consolidated school system.

Luttrell served on the consolidation planning commission that made the recommendations the steering committee reviewed.

He will be pushing schools leaders to get closer to the planning commission recommendations.

“The intent of the transition planning commission is that we didn’t get into the school room,” Luttrell said. “We got into the school building. We looked at custodial staff. We looked at maintenance staff. … We looked at overhead in the schools. … We purposely stayed away from what was going on in the classroom.”

But parents at the public hearings this week were most upset about higher pupil-teacher ratios at some grade levels as well as a reduction in assistant principals and clerical and support staff.

That, they argued, is a reduction that directly affects classrooms even if programs like CLUE and optional schools remain.

“Shelby County Schools parents have been told from day one to calm down, there won’t be a negative impact on their schools,” said Martin Lyle of Collierville, the parent of a student at Tara Oaks Elementary School. “Well, this is a negative impact. Our children won’t be impacted by these changes? Of course they will.”

The planning commission that Luttrell was a part of provided savings numbers for increasing pupil-teacher ratios and cutbacks of librarians and similar staff as part of its report last August. But the group did not endorse such cuts.

Its dollar figures were also different than those of the steering committee, although the same administrators worked with Boston Consulting Group in the planning commission effort.

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