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VOL. 127 | NO. 157 | Monday, August 13, 2012

Transcript: Luttrell Discusses Schools, Other Issues Facing County

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Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell talked several weeks ago with The Memphis News editorial board about the coming merger of schools and the creation of municipal school districts.

The conversation took place a few days before voters in all six suburban towns and cities approved the creation of municipal school districts.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

TMN: What did you think of the subpoena by attorneys for the Shelby County Commission seeking the identity of readers commenting on The Commercial Appeal website?

Luttrell: I was surprised. I very seldom read blogs. I’ve read them occasionally. Sometimes blogs are just nasty … and you kind of pass it off. For them to try to take it and draw some kind of conclusion that it directly relates to political actions that are taken – I just thought that a little bit of a stretch. I think we are going to see some wrinkles in this entire school thing that maybe we don’t see now. We know there is going to be an issue regarding school buildings. … I think we are going to see some lawsuits that lead to the disposition of buildings.

TMN: What do you think should happen?

Luttrell: The buildings belong to the school system. They don’t belong to county government. We carry the debt but we don’t own the buildings. If the school system can let those buildings go without adversely impacting our debt, then I say give it to them. But if it’s going to incur more debt by buildings subsequent buildings then that’s kind of where I step in and have a concern. That’s going to impact the suburbs as well. The suburbs are going to wind up paying either way. … I just try to keep it as simple as I can and say if we can give you that building without incurring any more debt then give it to them.

TMN: And that’s a school board to school board decision?

Luttrell: And of course the (municipal) school boards under the best of circumstances won’t be elected until November and wouldn’t take office until December or January which means it will probably be January or so before they can even initiate discussions between two school systems.

TMN: The transition planning commission wrapped up its work. You were a part of that. Were you more involved than you thought you would be?

Luttrell: Yes. I knew it was going to be a tough assignment. I knew it was going to be time consuming. … I felt like I needed to be involved. I certainly was involved with a group of 21 pretty strong personalities. I didn’t control that group at all. But I felt like I needed to get better educated on the entire education continuum before I could really make some smart decisions on how to move forward. I felt my position was unique because I was the only person who was there by virtue of my political status. The rest of them came from every walk of life. My appointment was purely a political appointment. I needed to try to balance off the needs for a good quality education system with the political realities of what would take place. I tried to bring that level of political balance in one sense keeping politics out of the actual formulation of the plan but then recognizing the political realities and what the plan was going to have to endure to be successful. … I’m kind of a bookend here. I’m on the first of the three phases and I’m on the last of the third phase. In between is how you bridge from the plan to reality.

TMN: You also have a say in funding the first budget of the consolidated school system when budget season begins next spring. Shelby County government will be the sole local funder of the merged school system for that budget year and there is at least a $57 million gap between revenues and expenses as estimated by the planning commission.

Luttrell: We’ve come up with 172 recommendations and how seriously the school board addresses those recommendations will in large part determine how much I support their budget proposal when it comes up next year. If I can see a real determination on their part to try to work within those recommendations we presented, then when they bring their budget forward we’ll take a very favorable look at it. But if they’re expecting the county to bail them out without them making no sacrifices or an attempt to embrace what we think are some good recommendations then that’s going to in large part help me determine the role I’m going to play. If they don’t find the recommendations we’ve presented are solid, give us some options or bring something back and say we can’t do this, but we can do that. Take the plan seriously, look at it seriously and give us feedback. I’ve never taken a no tax pledge and I won’t. I don’t think that’s very politically responsible to take no tax pledges. If they have made every effort to bridge the funding gap and embrace what we think is a good plan and they still have a budget shortfall we’ll see what we can do to help them.

TMN: The Shelby County Commission passed a resolution earlier ruling out a countywide sales tax hike. Such a tax hike would change the revenue for the municipal school districts and actually mean less sales tax revenue for some of them. So, is a countywide sales tax hike off the table as far as you are concerned?

Luttrell: It is for the time being. They can always pass a resolution at anytime that would counter the previous resolution. The way I interpreted that particular resolution is it remains in effect until it’s rescinded or another resolution comes forward. What we’ll do is we’ll take a look at the schools’ future budget and we’ll make the determination as to whether or not that’s an option. There are things other than the sales tax. You can move around a few pennies on the property tax. There are several things we can do that might help us reach that amount. There are a whole range of options.

TMN: But a sales tax hike would affect the revenue the municipalities get from their sales tax hikes.

Luttrell: It would. We would essentially trump the municipalities. Where now the municipalities get 100 percent of the revenue, if the county implements it then 50 percent of it must go to the (countywide) schools. You can assume that the municipalities are going to take that 100 percent and devote it all to schools but they have the option of doing what they want.

TMN: What do you think of the plans as they’ve been sketched out for the municipal school districts, specifically their budgets?

Luttrell: I think it really depends on what do Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville – what do they want in a school system. I’ve had some discussions with (Southern Educational Strategies consultant) Jim Mitchell … Jim has essentially told them what they can do with the current rate of expenditure per child which is roughly $8,500. He’s said for $8,500 this is your revenue stream and this is how you can apply it. But Jim will also tell you, you can spend a lot more or you can spend less. It depends on what you want in a school system. Each of those municipalities … they are going to have to decide to what extent they want to invest in education. I thought Jim Mitchell did a good job of his assessment. But Jim will be very candid with you and say you can go up to East Tennessee and find counties that spend $11,000 per student and then there are other small counties that spend probably $6,000 per student. You can spend a variety of different ways. He also makes a good point that you can go into some of these school systems that are spending $5,000 to $6000 per student but have superior teachers and they are doing an amazing job. There’s more than just the dollars.

The (referendum) vote gets us through one phase and it shows the communities’ commitment to municipal schools. Then the detail work has to start. I don’t think that’s lost of the suburbs. They have stated they realize they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.

TMN: Do you think the suburbs should stay in the countywide school system?

Luttrell: I honestly believe – I go out on a limb here – the law allows the municipal districts. If they want to go to municipal schools districts, I support it. I think you can support both. One of the things that I stated all through the transition planning process is the transition planning committee needs to accept the fact that there will possibly be municipal school districts. There are ways I think the two can work together for the mutual benefit if you will. There are certain contractual issues that if we will let the county(wide school system) address issues such as food services, transportation, special education, custodial services – there are some very core services that if we could collaborate together on that – it would be financially beneficial to the unified school system. It would be a revenue stream back into the unified system. … Taking two large systems and making a larger system runs contrary to progressive educational thinking. Really the progress toward educational systems is really to break them down into smaller system. We were somewhat restricted by law in what we could do. … But I’ve always felt that smaller systems were probably better. That said, if we’re going to have municipal school systems let’s see what we can do to make that work for all of us and I think it can work for all of us.

TMN: What are some of the biggest things you see happening in the core Memphis City Schools system with the TPC plan?

Luttrell: We put a strong emphasis in the TPC on pre-k, the value of pre-k. That is to me one of the more significant pieces of the puzzle. If you look at the TPC plan, from the standpoint of making financial reductions, we really didn’t make reductions in the area of education services. We did in the area of education administration, the number of assistant principals … Among the classroom education services, we really didn’t take anything away.

TMN: Critics say one of the worst things about Memphis city schools is the bureaucracy. Did you address that – the notion of a bloated bureaucracy?

Luttrell: The combined central offices we were able to reduce by about 20 percent in our recommendations. But then we also made further reductions in some of the schools in terms of the need for this many assistant principals.

TMN: On a couple of other topics, Delta Air Lines has been in the news for all kinds of reasons. What can you do about the complaints of higher air fares and less service at Memphis International Airport?

Luttrell: It’s a legitimate issue. I can tell you it’s one of those issues where I’m getting pulled in numerous directions. There are some who are saying why don’t you get out there and fight this battle against Delta. There are others who are saying you can’t do anything about it. I’ve had to kind of study the issue to find out what my role can be. What I’ve decided is that definitely it’s an issue that affects us. But like so many things, we need as a community to  recognize what’s driving this force. … What we’ve got to do is try to change the market. I don’t think we can shame them. I don’t think we can force them. What we’ve got to do is change the market through competition. Can we get a Southwest in here? Can we get more regional carriers in here? The major airlines have shifted more and more of their resources to international flights and decreased domestic flights. If we can get some competition here from those airlines that focus just on domestic flights then I think that’s going to be the approach we may take. It’s a matter of market driven principles. Market driven principles apply to everything.

TMN: EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine) is a year and a half old. How is it going and is the effort fully funded?

Luttrell: The city just notified us. The city and county both owe $7.5 million. We have met our obligation on the county side. The city has met $2.5 million of their obligation. They have an agreement with EDGE to pay the balance. So hopefully we’ve got that worked out. Now EDGE has an endowment. EDGE is a paradigm shift for our community – a very drastic paradigm shift. And it is going to take a little while to work through the wrinkles. … We’ve got 13 members on the EDGE board. We are in the process now of developing our economic development strategic plan through the Shelby County Growth Alliance. Marrying up the work of the Growth Alliance with the responsibilities of edge will be a challenge for us.

TMN: Will we see any big economic development prizes like Electrolux and Mitsubishi?

Luttrell: The fact that we had those two big ones was significant. But there is progress being made with what I would call the smaller catches. We’re still wrestling with some of the core deficiencies that we’ve had for quite a while which has to do with everything from poverty to job development to crime, health services, those are all contributing factors to the economic viability of the community. And we will continue to struggle until we can make progress in all of those areas including education. … On a scale of A to F, as far as EDGE is concerned, I give it a C+. As Reid Dulberger gets his hands around the financial piece – Reid hasn’t even put forward his first budget yet and there’s a great deal of expectation about what Reid and EDGE can do. We just really need to slow things down and let EDGE get its infrastructure in place and get everybody confident in what their role is. This time next year they will be up to a B+.

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