Pre-Kindergarten Expansion in Funding Limbo

By Bill Dries

The idea of a city sales tax hike to fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten classrooms in Memphis schools may have been buried this week.

It happened as the City Council fielded a proposal from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. for a 15-cent property tax hike on top of the 25-cent increase in the tax rate as the recertified city property tax rate.

FLINN

The idea wasn’t doing that well even before the new tax indicator.

Council sponsors Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland delayed action earlier this year on setting a referendum date for the half percent sales tax hike. They wanted to see how the budget season went with the idea that Memphians wouldn’t be likely to approve a sales tax hike if their county or city property taxes – or both – went up first.

The sales tax hike would create an estimated $47 million in new revenue. The city would use $27 million to fund the pre-kindergarten expansion in Memphis in a program independent of the school system. The remaining $20 million in revenue would be used to roll back the city property tax rate.

HOPSON

Meanwhile, interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson took a quick inventory of existing pre-kindergarten classes and found that some classes have room.

“I think it’s important for the board to understand … 70 of the pre-K classes we had weren’t even full,” Hopson told school board members last month. “Another 109 classes didn’t have wait lists. When you start talking about rightsizing you have to consider rightsizing pre-K too.”

Hopson indicated he wants to come to the board with a plan for “rightsizing” pre-kindergarten in the consolidated school system before embarking on an expansion of the program. The board is already considering a rightsizing plan for K-12 schools that includes considering the closings of a dozen schools.

The $1.18 billion schools budget that appears to be on its way to winning funding approval by the Shelby County Commission includes restoring 40 pre-kindergarten classrooms in the consolidated system for a total of 172 serving 3,440 children.

The commission approved a county property tax rate this week on the first of three readings that would provide $20 million of new funding for schools. That includes funding to replace the federal stimulus funding that had helped Memphis City Schools temporarily fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten.

“Data shows that it’s very effective in helping kids to be ready for school,” Hopson said. “But pre-K is really a community issue. When you look at the economics of what we’ve been doing, we just can’t afford to do it.”