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VOL. 127 | NO. 212 | Tuesday, October 30, 2012

School Board to Vote on Supporting Tax Hike

By Bill Dries

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The chairman of the Shelby County Commission and the newest county commissioner have different thoughts on the countywide tax hike on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Members of the 23-member countywide school board are beginning to make decisions on the merger of the county’s two public school systems. The board will vote Monday on a plan to hire a superintendent by mid-February and votes on a resolution backing a half-cent sales tax to fund the consolidated school system.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

But chairman Mike Ritz and commissioner Steve Basar, elected to the commission in August, agree that the countywide school board hasn’t been aggressive enough in carrying out the transition to the schools merger to come in August.

“I don’t think they are being aggressive enough at all,” Basar said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “They are behind the timetable that the transition planning commission put forth. They haven’t appointed a superintendent and they should be doing that. They shouldn’t be spending their time debating a sales tax (hike).”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

The opinions of Ritz and Basar are important because the commission votes on funding for the merged school system. There is a $57 million gap between expenses and revenues for the consolidated school system even if the school board votes to close 20 under-utilized schools in the western part of Memphis and outsource transportation and custodial services.

Those three recommendations are the most important and the most controversial of 173 made by the consolidation planning commission to the school board.

“If they don’t want to be aggressive about these things … the deficit is going to be so big that I think the county commission is going to totally choke on it and they are not going to have any assistance,” Ritz said. “They’ve got some tough decisions to make and … it is kind of disgusting, frankly, to not see them move faster.”

Ritz said without a sales tax hike, closing the $57 million gap between expenses and revenues would require a 38-cent county property tax hike. The sales tax hike would generate $30 million in revenue that goes to local education by state law.

A property tax hike of any kind would take a nine-vote majority on the commission and is not a political certainty either.

“We have a $57 (million) to $60 million deficit coming to us at a minimum from the school system next year. And that is assuming the school board makes some pretty tough decisions about closing some schools, bus drivers in the county and maintenance of schools in the city,” Ritz said. “Our only place to look for funds year in and year out is the property tax. We have this sales tax opportunity. It’s kind of a once in a lifetime situation to use a half-cent sales tax countywide.”

Basar is opposed to the sales tax hike.

“I think the sales tax is a regressive tax. … That tax is going to disproportionately hit the people who don’t have the funds,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of savings opportunities that the school board needs to address. Quite frankly, when you put the (school systems) together and they say it is going to cost more, I find that unacceptable.”

The comments from Ritz and Basar were in advance of a vote by the countywide school board Tuesday, Oct. 30, on a resolution of support for the countywide sales tax hike. But the resolution does not pledge that the $30 million in revenue will be used specifically to expand pre-kindergarten access in Shelby County.

In advance of the vote, 12 school board members representing a majority on the 23-member board, published an open letter in which they endorsed the sales tax hike. But like the resolution, the board members only talked in general terms about what specifically the revenue might be used for.

“I can assure that there is a majority of the county commission, a real good-sized majority, who support the pre-k expansion of the school system,” Ritz said.

Basar said he is not opposed to a pre-k expansion. Like Ritz, he notes that pre-kindergarten programs don’t exist just within the school systems. County government has the Head Start program, which is pre-k independent of the school systems.

“I would like to see us talk about Head Start … and have a comprehensive approach,” Basar said. “What we are talking about doing right now is let’s fill the gap. … Let’s look at the whole picture.”

The school board also votes Tuesday on recommendations for how to conduct the search for a superintendent to lead the county’s two public school systems into the transition to a merger and beyond August’s merger. The process recommended by an ad hoc committee is a national search using a search firm with a superintendent selected and a contract negotiated by mid February.

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