School Board Debates Sales Tax Support

By Bill Dries

Countywide school board members debated Tuesday, Oct. 23, the idea of backing a half cent countywide sales tax hike.

Half of the estimated $60 million in revenue from the tax hike on the November ballot would got to local education by state law.

But the resolution backing the ballot item stopped short of saying the $30 million in revenue would absolutely go to fund universal access to pre-kindergarten programs.

The pre-k committment has been a key part of the campaign by backers of the sales tax hike to win political support as early voting in advance of election day hits the one week mark Wednesday.

The resolution offered by school board member Kevin Woods supports the funding as "additional resources to make tough decisions" in the upcoming schools merger, Woods said.

"We're in difficult times here. We need to be making sure that our elected officials know we need resources to sustain and do the things we need to do in this district," he added. "We are not running from the tough decisions. We are committed to the hard work, but at the same time we need all of the resources available."

Woods had included language earlier committing to pre-k funding from the revenue but changed the wording on the advice of administrators of both school systems who haven't yet begun work on the first budget for the first fiscal year of the merged school system.

School board member David Pickler said the issue is “political” and specifically a suburban versus urban issue, referring to the sales tax hikes approved by voters in the six suburban towns and cities in August to fund their own separate municipal school districts that are being formed.

“There are communities in Shelby County that are strongly in opposition to the sales tax because of the interests of suburban Shelby County,” Pickler said. “I do think it pits urban versus suburban interests.”

School board member Tomeka Hart called the argument “laughable.”

“This is the tax that will take care of all Shelby County,” she said noting that municipal school districts would also get revenue from the tax hike. “It is laughable that you would say us supporting this is pitting one against the other.”

The debate came during a Tuesday, Oct. 23, school board work session to review and discuss items that will be up for a vote at the board's Oct. 30 meeting.

The items included a recommendation to move toward hiring a search firm to conduct a national search for the superintendent of the merged school system.

The recommendation from an ad hoc committee, headed by school board member Chris Caldwell, recommends a 20-week process that includes selecting the search firm, the firm taking applications and suggesting three finalists and the board selecting a superintendent -- all by mid-February.

Pickler asked attorneys for both school systems for legal opinions on whether the process will trigger buy-out clauses in the contracts of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

The national search would permit Cash and Aitken and any other local educator to apply for the job.

Pickler also wanted legal opinions on whether hiring a search firm means applicants can remain anonymous until or unless they are finalists.

Memphis City Schools general counsel Dorsey Hopson said during the job search that ended with Cash's selection a Chancery Court ruling held a search firm cannot keep the names of applicants confidential and must make them public under the state open records law.

Pickler said making public the names would have a "chilling effect" on who would apply.