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VOL. 129 | NO. 142 | Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pre-K Funding Approved as Commission Term Nears End

By Bill Dries

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With two meetings left in their current four-year term, Shelby County commissioners – those going off the body and those remaining – are making final pushes for items on their personal political agendas.

Shelby County Commissioners Steve Mulroy, seated, and Terry Roland, standing, worked together on a prekindergarten compromise.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

And the results are crossing some political boundaries among a group in which ideological differences have generated a good deal of friction in the last eight years.

The approval Monday, July 21, of $3 million in county government surplus funds from the just-ended fiscal year for prekindergarten classrooms in Shelby County Schools was a case in point.

The body went for a compromise offered by Commissioner Terry Roland that commits the county only to funding for the current fiscal year and not a second fiscal year as proposed by Commissioner Steve Mulroy.

“I can’t see giving away something that we don’t know if we’ll have next year,” Roland said.

“As long as it’s understood that it can be used now – this academic year,” Mulroy said in voting for the amendment.

Mulroy and Roland have displayed very different political ideologies and motivations in their four years together on the commission. Mulroy is leaving the body in September after serving the two-term limit. Roland will be returning for a second term after running unopposed on the August ballot.

The commission will have at least seven new members – a majority on the 13-member body – when all of the votes are counted next month.

Mulroy began pursuing funding for prekindergarten classrooms during the budget season, tying the funding to either sales tax revenue from unincorporated Shelby County or 4 cents extra on the county property tax rate – either way coming to $2.8 million in funding.

The commission did away with the 4-cent property tax differential as recommended by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. That’s when Mulroy began pushing for the surplus funding that surfaced as the books were closed on the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Luttrell would commit to the $3 million for the current fiscal year but not the $3 million Mulroy wanted off the top of any surplus for the fiscal year after that and not directly to Shelby County Schools.

Mulroy pushed for both, and Luttrell argued for a better plan to sustain the funding beyond the current fiscal year. Luttrell conceded Monday that it’s highly unlikely there wouldn’t be surplus funds available for prekindergarten when the current fiscal year ends next June.

The surplus funding approved Monday will go to the nonprofit Shelby County Education Foundation, which will administer the funds through a contract to be developed by the Luttrell administration.

Mulroy had advocated direct funding to Shelby County Schools but said the Roland amendment was acceptable to him because it would mean prekindergarten funding in the current fiscal year.

Roland and Luttrell argued that in direct funding to Shelby County Schools there could be no guarantee the money would have to be used for prekindergarten. And there was some question about whether direct funding to the school system would mean the county would have to come up with a proportional share of funding for the six suburban school systems based on average daily attendance.

Commissioner Heidi Shafer was among those who said the suburban school systems aren’t interested, at least for now, in prekindergarten classrooms with the debut of their systems just weeks away.

“Let’s not let it get farmed out into the suburbs who aren’t even interested,” she said of the prekindergarten commitment in the fine print of the resolution.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the additional county funding would be used to restore the number of prekindergarten classrooms for the academic year that begins next month to the number there were in the last school year. Without the funding, the classrooms would have been cut.

The compromise worked out Monday prompted Commissioner Mike Ritz to wonder if such a third-party nonprofit managing county funding to Shelby County Schools could possibly be used to deny education funding to the six suburban school systems on the basis of an average daily attendance split.

He warned that the approach might open “some sort of Pandora’s box of activity.”

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