There is still some power left in the line that separates Memphis City Schools from Shelby County Schools with about two weeks left until the two public school systems formally become one.
That was evident Tuesday, June 11, as the countywide school board approved a slate of 35 policy decisions for the merged school system whose fiscal year begins July 1.
The school board members approved the use of $12 million from the reserves of the two combined school systems to bridge a funding gap in the budget for the first fiscal year of the consolidated school system.
The $12 million from the unassigned reserve fund totaling $44.1 million bridges a gap between expenses and revenues for the merged school district.
The Shelby County Commission has approved $20 million in new funding for the school district and approved on the first of three readings an ordinance that would increase the county property tax rate 6 cents to provide about half of the increased schools funding. The rest comes from revised county revenues estimates that produce the rest of the schools funding.
The funding gap increased by about $2 million with a new lower estimate of state funding that took about $1 million in anticipated funding from the consolidated school system and another $1 million in upfront money the school system must provide charter schools under new state regulations.
Interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson recommended the use of the fund balance over further funding cuts that could have included special education assistants.
But school board member Martavius Jones thought the two reserve funds should be kept separate and the funds from each used proportionately.
“All of this could be supporting services that would no longer be under the auspices of the unified school district,” Jones said, referring to the possibility of suburban school districts that could start in the county’s six suburban towns and cities in the 2014-2015 school year – the second year of the merger.
Hopson countered that he and his staff are planning for the school year that starts Aug. 5 with the suburbs in the consolidated school district.
“We are going to be one school system next year,” Hopson said. “We have to take care of every kid.”
Jones didn’t push his request to a vote. And Hopson said the reserve fund for the consolidated school system cannot be dispersed with shares to any suburban school districts that might be formed.
Meanwhile, the board approved all but one in a set of 35 policy recommendations for the new school district.
The policies approved include a cell phone policy that is a close match to Shelby County Schools policy, permitting students to bring cell phones to school but adding that they must be turned off and stored in lockers and other designated areas where they can’t be used. Memphis City Schools policy had been to forbid students from even bringing the phones on campus.
School board members David Pickler and Kenneth Whalum thought the policy should be just the opposite – to encourage more use of digital devices in education. The new policy includes a provision that allows teachers to specifically make an exception for students to use the phones for class work, for an app for instance.
“It’s the 21st century, and rather than limiting cell phone use, we need to be figuring out a way to expand cell phone use,” Whalum said.
“I think this board needs to set a different vision,” Pickler added, saying school boards across the country have struggled with the issue.
Hopson said his goal is to get schools open for the year with a policy set that wouldn’t necessarily preclude reviewing it and possibly changing it to do what Pickler and Whalum want.
“I think the main concern is that when you have phones, you tend to have kids that get disruptive,” Hopson said. “And then there are some cheating concerns.”
The board also had an extended debate about specifically banning corporal punishment that led to a delay Tuesday in voting on that policy until regular board meetings later this month.
The new policy would be what has been policy in Memphis City Schools. Shelby County Schools policy did not specifically ban corporal punishment but Hopson said it hasn’t been used in many years.
Two retired principals on the school board were on different sides of the issue.
Joe Clayton said he couldn’t support an outright ban and believes the punishment is effective based on his experience.
“Some times you just have to get some people’s attention in order to teach them,” Clayton said.
Like Clayton, Oscar Love was a high school principal, and unlike Clayton he is “adamantly opposed” to corporal punishment and didn’t use it.
“I just don’t think high school students should be hit,” he said. “And I know it isn’t effective.”