School Board Majority Backs Sales Tax Hike

By Bill Dries

Twelve of the 23 countywide school board members have signed a letter urging voters to approve a half-cent countywide sales tax hike in the Nov. 6 elections.

The letter dated Thursday, Oct. 25, refers to using half of the estimated revenue from the extra half cent for an expansion of pre-kindergarten. But it mentions pre-k as one of several possible uses for the $30 million that would go to local education under state law.

“We believe it is important to send a signal to the community that we support this referendum in the majority and also intend to use the additional revenue generated by it for essential educational programming,” the letter reads.

The appeal also describes the referendum as “an opportunity for the community to help on the revenue side as we do our part to make the tough decisions and prioritize academic investments, like pre-k on the board.”

School board members who signed the letter are chairman Billy Orgel, Chris Caldwell Stephanie Gatewood, Diane George, Tomeka Hart, Martavius Jones, Oscar Love, Betty Mallott, Reginald Porter, Patrice Robinson, Jeff Warren and Kevin Woods.

One of the 11 school board members who did not sign the letter, David Reaves, termed the letter "totally inappropriate" in an online comment reacting to word of the letter in The Daily News.

The letter also said the tax hike would mean an extra $200 dollars a year per student in Shelby County.

But the specific use of the $30 million in revenue for “universal pre-k” was a goal backers of the ballot question touted Oct. 1 as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn announced they would favor the tax hike after initially opposing it.

Wharton specifically said his support was conditioned on all of the money going to “universal pre-kindergarten.”

A resolution the board will consider at its Tuesday, Oct. 30, meeting expresses support for the sales tax hike and the 12 signatures on the letter means it will probably have the majority needed to pass.

But the resolution stops short of committing the revenue to the goal of universal pre-k, although it and another resolution floated in September included such wording in earlier version.

The resolution by Woods that is on Tuesday’s agenda has what he termed “revised” language “to make sure we don’t tie the hands of the administration.”

The letter appeal comes more than a week into the early voting period. Close to 20 percent of Shelby County’s 598,244 registered voters have already cast ballots in advance of the Nov. 6 election day.