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VOL. 128 | NO. 31 | Thursday, February 14, 2013

School Budget Debate Far From Over

By Bill Dries

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The countywide school board’s $145 million “ask” is on its way to the Shelby County Commission.

There was much debate among board members about the amount but general agreement that they need more details about what would be in even a preliminary budget.

The reaction this week came after the first attempt at a preliminary budget from staff of both school systems provoked mutual alarm among city and county school parents.

Prior to the budget outline showing rising pupil-teacher ratios and cuts in teaching assistants and assistant principals, many of those parents had been relying on assurances the opening day of classes Aug. 5 in the merger would see few if any changes for the vast majority of students in both systems.

The cuts and changes were amended in the second budget revision school board members got Tuesday, Feb. 11, as they ultimately voted to ask for $145 million in extra funding for the first schools budget of the merger.

Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken said the staffing reductions proposed earlier were part of a move under way over several lean budget years in which neither school system has seen extra local funding.

“We have had to make some staffing reductions the last couple of years,” he said.

In the school system staff’s new budget recommendations there was a $65 million gap between revenues and expenses.

The new numbers included $83 million in additional efficiencies that included some adjustments to previous numbers. The efficiencies were balanced against the cost of restoring some items and expanding them like vice principals for all schools with more than 1,500 students. That is seven of the eight county high schools and four Memphis high schools.

On the other side of the ledger is a decision that no school with 500 or fewer students would have an assistant principal.

Regardless of the reaction to come from the commission, there are still lots of questions and even some conflicts about the line items school board members must resolve.

“This is an abstract,” school board member David Pickler said early in the discussion. “I don’t think the board at this point has enough information to even act upon a budget tonight.”

Some school board members again talked of a phased-in approach over several school years to a genuine merger of the two school systems as well as the leveling process for employee pay and other benefits across the two school systems as they become one.

“I’m less concerned about the actual merger than I am about getting it right,” said school board member Reginald Porter. “I think we are extremely rushed now. What do we do to legally merge but maintain the level of education we have in both systems?

“I feel like we are going to kill ourselves by trying to do everything at the same time.”

And there were indications the board will have another protracted debate when it decides whether to outsource custodial and transportation services, two key recommendations of the transition planning commission last summer.

Some board members were vocal this week in their opposition to any outsourcing.

Staff recommended against the third key recommendation to close 20 Memphis schools for a savings the planning commission estimated at $20 million. They disputed the planning commission estimate of savings and recommended closing four schools for an estimated savings of $3.3 million.

Meanwhile, the staff also corrected its numbers to show a reduction in funding for advanced placement courses and college preparatory services lower than the initial reduction because the cut was added twice.

The savings also include money saved from no expansion of pre-kindergarten beyond what exists now with federal funding.

But if a city sales tax hike the Memphis City Council is considering for a fall special election is approved next month by the council and on the ballot by Memphis voters, council sponsors of the measure estimate the $27 million in revenue for pre-kindergarten would be enough to fund existing pre-kindergarten in the city and expand it within the city.

With the city funding, the pre-kindergarten system would be independent of the consolidated school system or the consolidated school system might run it under contract with the city of Memphis. Either way, the expense would not be in the school system’s budget if pre-kindergarten is expanded only within Memphis.

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