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VOL. 126 | NO. 141 | Thursday, July 21, 2011

MCS-City Council Talk Money At 4 PM

By Bill Dries

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As Memphis City Council members and Memphis City Schools board members prepare to talk for the first time since the school board voted to possibly delay the Aug. 8 start of the school year, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has offered to put $10 million in city funding on the table.

The offer, which is in addition to $3 million in funding the city is already turning over, is expected to be discussed at Thursday's 4 p.m. committee session at City Hall.

Monitor developments in the meeting in real time on Twitter @tdnpols. This web story will also be updated.

MCS board members voted 8-1 Tuesday, July 19, to delay the Aug. 8 start of school until the city pays a disputed amount of money the system says the city owes for the fiscal year that began July 1.

MCS officials and Memphis City Council members meanwhile moved up what was to be an Aug. 2 meeting on school funding to Thursday afternoon at City Hall.

The full council will still vote Aug. 2 on $3 million in partial funding for the current fiscal year.

The vote this week 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, July 15 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 told the council Tuesday. “I don’t know how to state it with any more clarity.”

The remainder 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.

Wharton was still frustrated as he talked with reporters Wednesday afternoon. During the Friday phone call, he said Cash had given some indication that he was dis-satisfied with the piecemeal nature of the funding.

Asked if he was surprised by Monday's board vote, Wharton answered with a long silence followed by, "No, I was not. Did I like it? No."

Council chairman Myron Lowery, who moved up the council committee discussion, said Wharton was being "too kind" in his assessment of the school system's action.

"It doesn't make any sense," Lowery said. "We are taking a beating in the media because we haven't been as aggressive as we should have been. This is a fight that never should have gone public."

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.”

Wharton said Wednesday he talked with MCS board president Martavius Jones and was "quite optimistic" an agreement could be reached. He also said several times that if the start of the school year is delayed, it will not be the fault of city government

"There is no reason coming out of 125 N. Main for schools not to open on time," Wharton said. He also rejected what he said has been a lot of advice from the public and other political leaders about whether the threat to delay the school year is a bluff.

"This is not about being bluffed into anything," Wharton said. "All I care about is Aug. 1 and Aug. 8," Wharton said, referring to the date for teachers to report and students to report to start the new school year.

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