Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell won an important Shelby County Commission vote last week when the commission approved the $4.38 county property tax rate he recommended.
The tax rate, with a 30-cent tax rate increase and a 6-cent tax increase, still faces two more readings. But the proposal backed by Luttrell and County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz had eight votes, one more than the seven needed, on first reading.
But passing the tax rate that creates $20 million in new funding for the consolidated school system in its first fiscal year is just the first hurdle of several county government faces over at least the next three years.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell appeared on the most recent “Behind the Headlines” on WKNO-TV to discuss schools funding.
“Our schools are going to cost us more money,” Luttrell said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “We knew going into this merger with the two school systems that it was going to cost more money, primarily because $68 million that was there from the city is no longer there.”
But the consideration of how much county government should fund the school system will change for the second fiscal year of the merger that starts July 1, 2014. That’s when Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities are expected to try to start their own separate municipal school districts in a break from the consolidated school district they will be a part of in the school year that starts Aug. 5.
“We’re going to have a reset of the entire scrutiny of education budgets,” Luttrell said. “What we’re experiencing this year, I think we’ll experience next year as well during the budget season.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video site, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Luttrell didn’t automatically back the general concept of more county funding for the consolidated school district. He wanted to see the countywide school board at least give serious thought to the 172 recommendations that the board got from the transition planning commission (TPC).
“I had a pretty good idea of what they could bring their budget to,” Luttrell said. “We pushed long and hard for them to embrace the recommendations or at least modify the recommendations that were made by the TPC. I found it very frustrating that they moved at such glacial speed in doing that.”
But Luttrell ultimately recommended last month a 6-cent property tax hike as part of his recommendation to create $20 million in new county funding for the school system.
It’s not the $30 million gap between revenues and expenses in the school system’s proposed budget, but it is enough that interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said he will likely ask the school board to fund the remaining $10 million, either through using reserves or cutting some of the lowest priority line items in the budget or a combination of both.
“They are educators. They are the professionals. So I want to defer to them to a certain extent,” Luttrell said. “I’m satisfied with the dollar figure they brought forward. In the years to come, I think that as we get settled into this transition – we know the reality of municipal schools – we ought to be looking at it again.”
When a schools budget for year two of the merger begins to come into shape, probably without the six suburban towns and cities, there will be other considerations.
Hopson has recommended the school board close a dozen schools in the 2014-2015 school year, which will have a fiscal impact.
It won’t be until the third year of the merger that there probably will be more stability in terms of annual funding the county can expect to come up with for public education. That’s how many years the state gives local leaders to determine what their annual maintenance of effort is for the school system – the minimum amount the state requires county government to provide in education funding or risk losing the much larger portion of state funding the school system or systems get. The maintenance of effort amount changes if enrollment drops.
“We need to use those three years to take a very diligent, comprehensive look at the school system and what we want in the future of our school system,” Luttrell said, declining to speculate about whether the amount ultimately could be less than the $362 million the county now provides. He said it is “theoretically possible.”
“I wouldn’t guess in that area right now,” he said. “I would say we’ve just got to see how they (the school board) maneuver through the possibility of municipal school districts, what type of restructuring they do at that time and make a call on an annual basis until we can get through that three-year period.”