Two weeks out from the formal start of the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems, critics of the merger on the Shelby County Commission portrayed it as about the Memphis City Schools’ or the Shelby County Schools’ way of doing things.
“This is a hostile takeover,” Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, a former county school board member said. “The city way of educating plus the city employees equals the city’s failures. You get the same results if you do the same things. Y’all understand that don’t you?”
Bunker was part of a protracted debate on the commission Monday, June 17, spread across two items related to the merger.
The commission approved the consolidated school system’s $1.18 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That includes $381 million in county funding.
The debate on the budget included complaints from commission critics of the schools merger that no one from the school system was present for the vote.
County Attorney Kelly Rayne told commissioners the commission had to approve a schools budget by the start of the new fiscal year or risk losing a larger amount of state funding by Oct. 1. She also said the school system could not have operated on a continuation budget after July 1 because the continuation budget might have been that of the smaller Shelby County Schools system instead of the Memphis City Schools.
MCS goes out of existence on July 1.
Meanwhile, the county property tax rate ordinance, up for the second of three readings, failed by one vote to get the seven-vote majority necessary to pass. The tax rate being proposed includes 30 cents more to generate the same amount of revenue for county government as the current $4.02 rate to make up for property value lost in the 2013 property reappraisal. It also includes a 6-cent tax hike to generate half of the extra $20 million in funding the county would provide the school system for a total proposed county property tax rate of $4.38. The rate would remain 4 cents higher in the county outside the city of Memphis to pay off rural school bonds for the construction of Arlington High School.
The critical vote on the tax rate was Commissioner Sidney Chism who abstained.
The measure still advances to third reading at the commission’s July 8 meeting.
“They’ve mishandled everything they’ve tried to do,” said Commissioner Chris Thomas, a former Memphis City Schools board member, of school system leaders. “If this was corporate America, the people at the top would be gone. This is what we feared. It’s actually a lot worse.”
Commissioner Walter Bailey said the tax rate wasn’t high enough and should include funding for a pay raise for all county employees. He praised the school system for bringing in a budget that cut $75 million in funding from the current fiscal year.
“I think they are doing a fine job,” Bailey added. “We don’t want to undermine the public confidence in the system.”
“They are running off the employees,” Bunker countered, referring to schools system management from the legacy Memphis City Schools. “They forced their hand on every single issue and when they do get control, they want to do things their way with their employees who have failed. … And then if we don’t go along with that with a smile on our faces, then we are some kind of racists.”
“I wouldn’t be here either,” Commissioner Henri Brooks said of interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s absence as she complained of “verbal stereotyping.” “We need to calm down the rhetoric. We’re all one Memphis.”
Commissioner Heidi Shafer, who abstained in the budget vote, said she wants the school system to be more accountable during the three-year period for resetting the local maintenance of effort for school system funding.
The “maintenance of effort” amount is the amount of county funding the state requires at a minimum each fiscal year in order to get the larger share of state funding for schools. Once it is set, it can only be reduced because of a drop in enrollment.
“I want the school system to get in the habit of answering questions,” Shafer said. “This is our opportunity to reverse – to get in the way of inertia. This is taxpayer money.”
Hopson showed up after the budget vote apologizing for the school system’s absence. Hopson cited a court deposition as well as working out the details of the new payroll plan for the merged school system.
He also noted that Memphis City Schools leaders did not appear before the commission as a practice even though county government provided the majority of the local funding MCS received each fiscal year.
Hopson said later some of what he heard about school system hiring practices and decisions from the commissioners was not accurate.