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VOL. 126 | NO. 140 | Wednesday, July 20, 2011

MCS Board Votes To Delay Aug. 8 School Start

By Bill Dries

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The stakes got higher Tuesday evening, July 19, in the funding dispute between the city of Memphis and the Memphis City Schools system.

MCS board members voted 8-1 Tuesday to delay the Aug. 8 start of the school year until the city pays a disputed amount of money the school system says the city owes for the fiscal year that began July 1.

MCS officials and Memphis City Council members are scheduled to meet Aug. 2, six days before what was to be the start of the school year. The council will vote that afternoon on $3 million in partial funding for the current fiscal year with another $5 million to come when the tax revenue is collected by the city treasurer’s office.

The vote at a special school board meeting capped a day of action and reaction in a three year funding dispute between the two bodies that began in 2008 when the then newly elected Memphis City Council cut MCS funding.

That prompted a court fight in which two courts ordered the city to pay the school system funding it withheld that year and ruled there is a maintenance of effort funding requirement in state law that includes city funding. But there are other connected legal questions not yet decided and city leaders maintain the courts set no parameters for how and when a payment plan should proceed.

School board members discussed delaying the start of the school year at their regular Monday meeting and set up the Tuesday meeting. They also passed a resolution Monday demanding the payment of $9 million they contend is past due on a total of $78 million.

Board members have differed with one another in the past over how to seek what they consider to be full payment of funding obligations from the city. But they have shared growing frustration over the pace of those payments and negotiations that involve not only Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. but the City Council.

Wharton and council members said Tuesday they are living up to their agreed upon funding obligations to MCS.

Wharton said the statements Monday, July 18, by school board members and MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash were a “mischaracterization.”

And he said he talked with Cash by phone Friday with city chief administrative officer George Little listening in to make sure the city and MCS were on the same page about city funding amounts for the fiscal year that began July 1. He said the amount to be paid in August with council approval is $3 million.

“The money is there,” Wharton said. “I don’t know how to state it with any more clarity.”

The remaining $5 million would come later in the fiscal year as the city of Memphis collects the tax revenue.

Wharton, Morris and Wade agreed that the city would not advance the tax revenue before it is collected by the city treasurer’s office. Because the funding is a dedicated part of the city property tax rate it flows directly from the treasurer’s office to MCS.

A frustrated Wharton commented after an hour long attorney-client private meeting Tuesday with council members and council attorney Allan Wade and city attorney Herman Morris. The MCS threat was one of two topics in the session.

“This council has appropriated all of the funding necessary to fund the Memphis City Schools,” said council chairman Myron Lowery.

Council member Shea Flinn said MCS officials were “misleading” the public during the “political season.”

Wade also made note of the political season.

“This is just politics,” he said. “This is just MCS using the bully pulpit.”

Cash said Monday evening that he intended to talk with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam about the possibility of a shorter school year because of the funding dispute.

He hadn’t talked with Haslam by Tuesday morning when Haslam arrived in Memphis. But Haslam had already read accounts of the MCS board meeting.

"My gut reaction is in Tennessee we need to go to school more, not less," Haslam said. "Any of our solutions we come up with, I hope don't involve less class time."

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 23 23 1,365
MORTGAGES 21 21 1,068
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 6 6 196
BUILDING PERMITS 117 117 3,173
BANKRUPTCIES 42 42 795
BUSINESS LICENSES 2 2 331
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0