VOL. 125 | NO. 220 | Thursday, November 11, 2010
City, MCS Weigh Funding Options
By Bill Dries
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. had done everything right in putting forward his plan for paying the Memphis City Schools $55 million over eight years.
Last month he began setting the stage for the eight-year time frame as subtly as possible. He went to the Memphis City Council Tuesday to say the plan was indeed an eight-year plan and plugged in the numbers – $5 million up front and then installments of about $6 million each over eight years.
Then city council member Shea Flinn proposed a single lump sum payment of half that – “50 cents on the dollar” – $21 million that would also settle the city’s court claim that MCS owes the city $123 million for decades of city funding for school construction and renovation projects. It is a legal claim MCS disputes.
And as a third act, council member Jim Strickland asked why MCS officials and City Hall couldn’t hire a mediator and find a settlement in the middle, between Wharton’s plan and Flinn’s plan.
The discussion itself, at an open council committee session, gave Wharton “a weird feeling.”
“This is odd,” Wharton said as he nevertheless agreed by the end of the session to talk with MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash about not only the installment plan but also Flinn’s lump sum proposal.
Cash didn’t rule out the lump sum payment, although he questioned how the city would make such a payment when Wharton had said $5 million was the best the city could do to start the installment plan.
Cash also told reporters it might be worth considering because it would end an expensive and continuing series of legal actions costing the city and the school system in the way of legal fees.
“Everything’s on the table. … We don’t agree that their counter suit has a whole lot of merit to it,” Cash said. “But what we don’t want is a drag out over the next five, six or seven years – wasting money that belongs to the children on lawyers.”
Wharton and Cash have said setting the terms of the $55 million court-ordered payment is key to getting to the real and continuing dilemma – finding a recurring source of funding to make up the amount of school funding cut in 2008 by the council on an ongoing basis.
But what Flinn also described as the “little fish” in the larger political pond is proving difficult to reel in.
Wharton said it would be difficult, given the public nature of any discussions the City Council and/or MCS board would have under the state’s open meetings law, to have mediation in any binding sense.
School system counsel Dorsey Hopson agreed.
“In reality, if the (MCS) board considers the mayor’s plan and the council doesn’t approve it, it doesn’t mean anything,” Hopson said. “And quite frankly, we thought we were going down the track of getting this resolved with the mayor.”
Then the school system heard some council members had different ideas. So did Wharton, who said the effect is what had been two-way talks between him and Cash is now a three-way meeting with someone from the council joining them with more possibilities on the table.
“Dr. Cash will present those to the board and his advisers and come back,” Wharton said, adding the school system could pick the installment plan, the lump sum payment or some blend of both. “The ball right now shifts to Memphis City Schools because it’s been presented to them in public.”