Sales Tax to Fund Pre-Kindergarten for County’s Students

By Bill Dries

Proponents of a countywide half-cent sales tax hike are promising pre-kindergarten access for all children in Shelby County if voters approve the proposed tax hike on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who had opposed the sales tax hike, announced Monday, Oct. 1, that he now favors the measure as long as the money goes to “universal pre-k” in Shelby County.

Wharton said he changed his mind as County Commission chairman Mike Ritz and Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn worked out a way to leverage the sales tax revenue for education with private funding to guarantee funding for pre-kindergarten programs.

“Once I saw that … they were prepared to earmark this portion of these funds to bring about early childhood (education) and this is guaranteed,” Wharton said, explaining why he now favors the proposed sales tax hike.

“If this money’s going in to be matched with other sources, you can say it is going into pre-k,” Wharton said. “There are mechanisms other than the traditional ways of doing this. That’s what my support is conditioned on. The voters have to know before I give one speech out on the campaign trail.”

The County Commission has no line-item control over the school system budget.

Ritz would not identify who the private funders are for now.

“But they are there,” he said when asked, “inside Memphis and otherwise.”

Wharton identified them in general terms as “philanthropies” and “nonprofits.”

Countywide school board member Jeff Warren had drafted a resolution last month that specifically called for any proceeds from a countywide sales tax hike to go to fund pre-kindergarten programs. But Warren later amended it to a general expression of support by the board for such programs.

The half-cent sales tax hike would raise $60.6 million in revenue for county government. Half of that would go to fund education – both the countywide merged school system and the municipal school systems that are still forming.

Wharton and Flinn had both opposed the move to the ballot by the Shelby County Commission because they had plans for a citywide sales tax hike that would have meant $47 million in revenue for the city and probably a city property tax roll back next spring when budget season begins.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell vetoed the countywide ballot question saying the tax hike is premature because the countywide school board has not come up with a specific budget plan for the merged school district that begins in August 2013. But the commission overrode his veto.

Luttrell said he still opposes the tax hike and believes there are other funding priorities that are more urgent for the merged school system.

“We have some huge gaps in just the general operations of our schools,” Luttrell said, citing security costs with the withdrawal of services by the Memphis Police Department. “Before we start talking about expanding program, we need to take care of the holes that are in the current program. To expand pre-k but not provide security for the schools is unpardonable. Pre-k will do us no good if we don’t have school security.”