Bunker, Hart Clash on Merger Future

By Bill Dries

One of the most vocal critics of the countywide school board’s $1.18 billion budget proposal says the schools merger is imposing a failed education formula on legacy Shelby County Schools.

BUNKER

“Why is it that Shelby County Schools can provide more teachers, better salaries for their principals and so forth – they can provide more of that than Memphis (City Schools) can with more money?” Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker asked. “That is the failure of the school board that Tomeka (Hart) served on to do what needed to be done years and years and years ago.”

And the school board member who first suggested a schools merger in 2010 says county schools were on borrowed time and money with an unsustainable richer staffing model without the merger.

HART

“If we were not merging, guess what? Shelby County Schools would be in deeper trouble than they are in right now,” Hart said. “This merger is actually saving Shelby County because we are trying our best to not have to gut their system. They cannot afford their system.”

The extraordinary exchange between Bunker and Hart came on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines,” which also included school board Chairman Billy Orgel and County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz.

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, will be posted Wednesday, May 29, on The Daily News Video, www.memphisdailynews.com.

Hart said Bunker’s question is “ridiculous.”

“I’m so tired of us and them,” she added.

“While we appreciate y’all’s thoughtful rescue,” Bunker replied, “we would prefer to be a part of our own system.”

The discussion was taped the day after the school board presented its $1.18 billion budget proposal to the Shelby County Commission. The Thursday, May 23, taping was also the last day of the final school year for the two separate school systems. When classes resume Aug. 5 for the new school year, the two school systems will be one.

Bunker, a former Shelby County Schools board member, said he cannot vote for a county property tax increase to fund the consolidated schools system budget, which has a $30 million gap. He believes the merged school system is too heavy with administrators, an attribute he believes has applied to Memphis City Schools for some time.

He pointed to the $159,000 annual salary of schools security director Gerald Darling, which is more than Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong makes.

“I saw that as a sign that they need to review maybe some of their salaries,” Bunker said. “Their focus has been if we cut anymore, we are going to have to cut in the classroom. I have a hard time believing they have to cut in the classroom when they have a security guard that’s being paid $159,000.

Orgel said taking the former Shelby County Schools to the city schools staffing levels with more students per teacher and fewer teachers is “the only place left to cut other than $50,000 here or $100,000 there, which will never add up to $30 million.”

“I challenge all of the elected officials on other bodies in this community to go take on the unions, to go cut salaries, to cut benefits and to cut their budget,” Orgel added. “I haven’t seen that being done anywhere but the school board.”

Bunker also accused the countywide school system of only reporting and allocating half of an unexpected increase in state Basic Education Program funding that trimmed about $5 million from the funding gap.

“I heard it was $10 million and your cut was $5 million,” Bunker said.

Hart and Orgel said Bunker is confusing the BEP funding with $9 million in state funding that was a cost-of-living raise for teachers that the state gave the school system a waiver on to level teacher and principal pay levels in the merger.

“There are a lot of things going around in the community about the state money,” Ritz said. “You could look at that thing any way you wanted to look at it and say anything you wanted to about it. It’s very confusing.”

Ritz said the schools budget is “reasonable” but doesn’t have a nine-vote, two-thirds majority on the commission if a property tax hike is used to bridge all of the $30 million gap.

But the proposed 6-cent property tax hike above a 30-cent increase in the tax rate to produce the same amount of revenue in a recertified tax rate proposed by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell would only take a simple majority of seven votes. That would require the school board to either use $10 million of its reserves or a combination of some reserve money and cutting a few items low on its budget priority list to get the rest of the way there.