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VOL. 127 | NO. 107 | Friday, June 1, 2012

Schools Group Lists "Bloody" Options To Close Funding Gap

By Bill Dries

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The group planning out a consolidated countywide school system found a way to balance the budget of the school system to come.

But it would come at the expense of much of the work the group has done to build an improved and merged school system.

The schools consolidation planning commission approved Thursday, May 31, an option list totaling $54 million in cuts it could make to balance the expenses and revenues of the school system that debuts in August 2013.

But the group also said the list was not a recommendation. They termed it “a reluctant contingency plan” that they hope will cause Shelby County government and state government leaders to consider additional funding instead.

The group earlier gave preliminary recommendations that would save an additional $97 million. Most of that would come from closing 21 schools and outsourcing custodial services at schools as well as transportation of students

The list of options includes increasing the student-teacher ratio by one from the current Memphis City Schools ratio to save $20 million. The $20 million is the highest dollar figure item on the list and it mean 280 fewer teachers as well as an additional three to four students in the average middle school and high school classroom.

Another $10.5 million would come from 250 fewer full time staff. There is a $9.7 million cut that is 100 fewer assistant principals and $8.4 million cut with 115 fewer librarians.

The new central office for the school system would also be cut by $14.3 million or the equivalent of the current cost of the Memphis City School system’s central office plus three percent of the cost of the Shelby County School system’s central office.

Planning commissioner Staley Cates who was among the presenters of the options urged those outraged by the possible cuts to lobby state legislators in Nashville for items like some kind of “enforceable contribution requirements” from charter schools that are placed in existing schools.

He acknowledged that the cuts would undo much of the best practices the group has recommended so far in the way of education reforms.

“It’s good to frame just how bloody this is going to be,” he said of the list of options.

Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott stressed one or some or all of the options could be recommended ultimately and/or adopted by the countywide school board.

The commission recommended a working group of school system, business and county government leaders consider the options and other factors and then come up with a specific plan for closing the gap.

The amount of cuts was originally $58 million and included cutting the goal of expanded pre-kindergarten access as well as an Innovation Office for the new school system. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell successfully argued for their restoration saying he believes there could be further cuts in the school system’s administration. The group agreed to discuss his call for administrative cuts at its June 14 meeting in which the planning commission will approve a draft plan for the consolidated school system’s operation and structure.

Countywide school board member Martavius Jones, who is also on the planning commission, questioned whether the group might want to reconsider the idea of multiple paths to autonomy that is the structure for the school system. Consultants to the group and educators on the panel have said the multi-path structure that encourages charter schools as well as other break the mold school models is more expensive than a more conventional school system.

But Jones’ suggestion didn’t make it to a formal motion.

The gap between expenses and revenues for the consolidated school system was estimated at $89 million a week ago. That estimate was revised to $67 million.

Cates said the factors include balancing the loss of state funding for students attending the state-run Achievement School District schools and charter schools with the savings the school system would have from fewer teachers and administrators. The leveling of teacher salaries required by state law could be phased in over three years for more savings and the school system would drop the school system’s share of retiree benefits from 70 percent to 63 percent, which is the percentage now used by the Shelby County Schools system.

The remainder of the $67 million gap not covered by the options could be closed by the school district pursuing an estimated $29 million from changes in state law that would permit some kind of payment from charter schools as well as a five year plan for the city of Memphis paying the consolidated school system a disputed $55 million MCS claims it is owed by the city. The legal dispute is now pending with a city counter suit that hasn’t been decided.

Part of the $29 million is the possibility of city funding as well as in kind services including free water from Memphis Light Gas and Water as well as crossing guards and police officers in some schools. All three are now provided to Memphis City Schools.

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