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VOL. 128 | NO. 24 | Tuesday, February 5, 2013

School Board Drills Into Merger Budget Numbers

By Bill Dries

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Here come the numbers. Countywide school board members have their first and very tentative look at what revenues and expenditures look like for the first fiscal year of the schools merger.

Those numbers are expected to change, perhaps dramatically, as the school board makes critical decisions on staffing ratios, salaries and outsourcing transportation and custodial services.

And the decisions the board makes will drive decisions the Shelby County Commission makes later on what is certain to be a need for more funding than the county provided last year at this time for the two separate school systems.

The steering committee wants a recommended level of funding request for the Shelby County Commission from the school board by Feb. 12.

The request then goes to the County Commission budget retreat Feb. 23 in what is a preliminary look at the numbers, which all parties agree could be changed by any or all of the players in determining local funding by the regular end of the budget season in May or June.

At the outset, the school board is being told by its steering committee of top administrators from both school systems that they have revenues of $1.1 billion and expenses of $1.3 billion for a gap of $157 million.

The gap’s biggest item is $68 million in city funding to Memphis City Schools that ends June 30 with the end of the current fiscal year.

With that is an estimate of $11 million in lost revenue from the state funding that travels with 1,400 students attending the state-run Achievement School District.

The school system picks up $22.8 million in expenses it does not have to pay from the loss of enrollment to charter schools and the Achievement School District. It is the only one of the key assumptions in the budget numbers board members got last week that is a gain for the combined school system.

There is $11 million more needed to equalize the pay gap between teachers and principals in the two systems. Memphis teachers make about $200 more a year than Shelby County teachers. Shelby County principals make about $10,000 more a year than their Memphis counterparts. The $11 million figure conflicts with the $3.5 million estimate Boston Consulting Group gave the consolidation planning commission for what it would take to level up teachers and principals.

The steering committee also includes another $18.8 million cost for all employees of the merged system taking a step increase.

The student-teacher ratios and other staffing issues were a big concern of the planning commission, which included the possible savings from raising the ratios but did not formally endorse them in their recommendations.

It was a critical moment in the 21-member group’s discussion when months of work on practices to improve student achievement for all students met the estimates of the cost of that general goal.

The recommendations the school board is considering on teaching and other staffing ratios from the steering committee either go for a middle ground between the two school systems or would adopt the ratios of Memphis City Schools.

The general education pupil-teacher ratios between the two systems are within no more than two students per teacher of each other.

In Memphis high schools the ratio is one teacher to 28 students and in Shelby County high schools it is one teacher to 26 students. The steering committee went with a ratio of one teacher to 27 students, which it estimates is cost neutral.

The committee recommends the Memphis City Schools ratio of one teacher for 26 students for middle schools for a savings of $5.4 million.

Memphis elementary schools have one education assistant per school. Shelby County schools have one per 100 students. The steering committee when with a formula based on three attendance tiers for ratios that range from one assistant for 250 students to one for 500. The recommendation is cost neutral.

All county high schools have four assistant principals and a vice principal, a $9 million expense to apply across a countywide system. The recommendation the school board is weighing would be one assistant principal for every 500 students except in high schools with 1,500 students or more, which would have five.

Clerical assistants in the merged school district would go to a ratio system based on attendance. County schools now have eight to nine in every high school, at least four in middle schools and a minimum of three in elementary schools. Memphis City Schools have two to seven in high schools and middle schools and two to four in elementary schools, depending on attendance.

The steering committee adopts the student ratio model but drops the ratio per student from the formula used in Memphis schools.

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