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VOL. 128 | NO. 29 | Tuesday, February 12, 2013

School Board Meets as Budget Debate Grows

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board members meet Tuesday, Feb. 12, in special session to send a still-forming budget for the first fiscal year of the consolidated school system to the Shelby County Commission.

And “still forming” is the operative term in what amounts to the first of two rounds of budget interaction between the school board and the commission, which provides all local funding to the merged school system.

From Tuesday’s session, the general budget estimate from the school board goes back to staff for either fine-tuning or an overhaul. And from there it goes to county commissioners who will discuss it in detail at a Feb. 23 budget retreat.

The idea is for commissioners to have an idea what the school board wants or needs in the way of funding and let the school board know what the commission is willing to do through the county property tax rate in the way of extra funding.

A Sunday afternoon public hearing at Houston High School in Germantown on the budget drew a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred.

A steering committee of administrators from both school systems went, in most cases, with the Memphis City Schools model over the extra cost of expanding what Shelby County Schools does across the much larger set of schools in Memphis when it comes to staffing and pupil-teacher ratios.

And those are the two areas of the most concern to parents over several public hearings in the last week.

“I think their real focus was trying to bridge the numbers gap. … You can’t just look at the numbers,” countywide school board member David Pickler said. “Our job is to get a budget that reflects the needs of the school system.”

He and school board members Mary Anne Gibson and Joe Clayton hosted the Sunday meeting with school board member Kevin Woods also in attendance.

“We have to speak with one voice,” Pickler told those at Houston High saying those who haven’t spoken up because they plan on shifting to a set of suburban school districts should be involved now in the countywide school district because the suburban school districts are “in the future.”

“It can’t be accomplished if we stay in this room and we don’t go out and advocate at our school board and demand that they level up to Shelby County Schools,” Gibson said.

Houston High School band director Jim Smith urged the school board to “submit a budget of real needs.”

“No one’s going to fire you over saying this is what you need,” he added. “You don’t have to be ashamed of doing more with less. Our issue here is we can’t do more with nothing.”

That was as close as any one got to saying what suburban residents said repeatedly as the suburban towns and cities began organizing municipal school districts – raise my taxes if you have to. I will pay more.

Instead the crowd Sunday questioned the efficiency of the Memphis City Schools system.

They also continued to voice the fear that the merger has become about what they consider to be a leveling down to Memphis City Schools standards.

Pickler and Gibson argued against the notion that the merger is about parts of both school systems coexisting across boundaries that will no longer exist later this year with the merger.

Sunday’s discussion very tentatively gave voice to the idea that sentiment may be building on the school board to at least talk about seeking more than $80 million to $90 million extra in funding from the Shelby County Commission.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has warned there is not support on the County Commission for a tax hike to fund even that much more.

Last week, county commissioners talked in general about the schools merger as they specifically discussed a single residency requirement for a countywide school system formed from two school systems that have different requirements and standards on that and other personnel policy matters.

“This is where the rubber hits the road on consolidation,” commissioner Heidi Shafer said as she suggested a phase-in period for such changes and the accompanying funding. “Consolidation does mean consolidation. I’m fine with a phased-in approach. It can be five years or so. But I think we all need to come under one umbrella at some time – not separate but equal.”

Commissioner Sidney Chism said the reality of the schools merger is already at hand.

“There’s only one system. I’m getting real tired of hearing about ‘my system,’” he said. “We’re there. … If we can’t work it out, then nobody’s afraid to go to war. It’s an easy thing to get into but it’s a big thing to get out of.”

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