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VOL. 127 | NO. 104 | Monday, May 28, 2012

New School System Faces $89M Shortfall

By Bill Dries

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The gap between expenses and revenues for a countywide school system that debuts in August 2013 is estimated at $89 million by the group that is planning what the school system will look like and how it will operate.

The gap, which is a net amount of red ink, is likely to change and become more specific in the next month. The schools consolidation planning commission is still on target to vote on a total draft plan for the consolidated school system at its June 14 meeting.

And planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott wants a plan that amounts to a recommendation for a balanced budget when the final plan is presented this summer to the countywide school board and state education officials for their approval.

“It is a difficult decision. There may be some disagreement as to whether it is our obligation to present a balanced budget. I personally think that we do have an obligation to do that,” she said after the group met Thursday, May 24. “But I think we also have an obligation to express to the community what we think the recommendations should be. Then we have to deal with the realities of the losses in revenue and see how much further we can go.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has become increasingly hesitant and, as he said last week, “uncomfortable” making tentative recommendations and then later putting a price on them.

“It sounds like there are still a lot of moving parts to this,” he said.

Personnel committee chairwoman Christine Richards was among those arguing for a set of recommendations and then prioritizing them. But she said Luttrell was correct that it will not be an easy process.

“We’re going to have a hard conversation with a lot of tradeoffs,” she said. “It is going to be uncomfortable.”

The $89 million gap takes into account $155 million in efficiencies the committee has identified that could be built into the new school system such as a smaller central office and eliminating some functions that are now duplicated in each of the county’s two public school systems.

The big-ticket efficiencies are an estimated $62 million from “rightsizing” the school district, which includes a still tentative recommendation that the countywide school board close 21 schools.

Another $66 million in savings would come from logistics recommendations, including outsourcing some school functions such as school busing and selling the bus fleet for an estimated $6 million to the company that gets the contract to run the buses for the school system.

“If it weren’t for some of these other things that are really not merger-related but are just related to the increased cost of doing business, then we wouldn’t have this gap,” Prescott said.

The other expenses, which would be happening even without a merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems, include a cost-of-living adjustment mandated by the state that comes to $30 million, as well as the shift of state funding that follows students attending charter schools as well as the state run Achievement School District.

The ASD goes into operation in the 2012-2013 school year, the last year of the separate city and county school systems.

The finance committee estimates $31 million will go with 4,000 students in charter schools. That does not include an estimate of the number of students who would attend municipal school districts in suburban towns and cities, should those municipalities form their own school systems.

Richards said that is because no one proposing a municipal school district has defined whether the school systems will include just children within the suburban towns and cities or whether it can take in students from other areas who currently attend those schools.

There is also the remaining uncertainty about whether the municipal school districts would have to pay for existing school buildings within their boundaries.

But the largest single amount in the net figure is the $68 million in city of Memphis funding that the city is not obligated to provide once the school systems are merged starting with the 2013-2014 school year.

The merged school district will mean the loss of free water provided by Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division to what are now Memphis City Schools. That is a $700,000 a year expense the new school system will pick up. So is $3.2 million from the loss of Memphis Police Department resource officers in MCS schools now.

“What’s going on here where probably one of the significant projects in the future of this region and now various entities are saying this is an opportunity for us to pull our support?” asked planning commissioner John Smarrelli.

“It’s a frustrating comment where you think you are doing something very, very well and then all of a sudden everybody is taking the opportunity to save costs at various levels.”

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