Countywide school board members are not the only players in the schools merger feeling pressure, although they may be feeling more pressure than others.
Shelby County Commissioners whose districts include suburban towns and cities have also been hearing a lot from parents in the suburbs who not too long ago had made peace with the idea that they would be part of the consolidated school district for at least the first school year.
The acceptance quickly converted to unease with a preliminary schools budget with $65 million in new funding that would cut school staffing levels across the system to the higher teacher-pupil ratios in Memphis City Schools. It also would mean fewer assistant principals, vice principals and teachers’ aides than county schools currently have.
The unease was one reason suburban representatives on the countywide school board voted to instead send a preliminary budget “ask” to Shelby County Commissioners that sought $145 million in new funding instead of the $65 million “ask” recommended by the school system staff.
Five of the six Republican county commissioners in the two districts that cover all or part of the suburbs outside Memphis have been vocal about their opposition to any county property tax hike of 10 percent or more. And they have leverage because a county property tax hike of 10 percent or more requires a nine-vote, two-thirds majority.
Shelby County Commissioner Steve Basar, one of the five, is advocating new funding from other sources on a one-year basis.
“I can’t say that I am supportive of a tax increase at this time,” said Basar, who has outlined his plan in greater detail in a guest column in today’s edition of The Daily News. “I do think we need to find a way to cobble together a solution that could include the municipalities kicking in. It could include the state kicking in more.”
Basar specifically advocates leaders of the six suburban towns and cities pitching in some revenue from the sales tax hikes suburban voters approved in 2012 to fund municipal school districts.
Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, on the WKNO TV program “Behind The Headlines,” was doubtful about the idea in his first reaction to it.
“Our folks voted for the sales tax revenue on the basis of local control,” he said. “My knee jerk reaction to the first time I’ve heard this would be I don’t think so.”
The earliest the suburbs would be able to start municipal school districts if a pending federal court decision upholds state laws or new state laws are passed in the Tennessee legislature this year is the 2013-2014 school year.
“I think we really need to work out finding a solution that’s going to minimize disruption in the classroom – that’s going to minimize change in this year one,” Basar said in an interview. “I’m for additional incremental funding on a one-year basis with the expectation that there is going to be a lot of cutting and there’s going to be streamlining – there’s going to be efficiencies down the road.”
Another of the five, Commissioner Chris Thomas, acknowledges the staffing cuts have put him in a “tough position.”
“The municipal parents don’t want their kids to suffer, which is why they didn’t want the merger – why I didn’t want the merger,” said Thomas, a former Memphis City Schools board member. “But now that it’s happening and they are saying they need all of this money because of the staffing reasons. For this coming year they may suffer a little bit.”
Republican Commissioner Wyatt Bunker is a former Shelby County Schools board member who like Thomas has said his stand against the $145 million extra is his belief that the Memphis City Schools model is inefficient.
“It hasn’t changed since I was a school board member. We knew back then that the Memphis City Schools were administratively top heavy. There’s a lot of waste,” he said last week as he and the other four tried unsuccessfully to pass a resolution that would have dropped the federal lawsuit filed by the commission specifically contesting state laws allowing municipal school districts.
At a budget retreat the previous weekend, Bunker was one of the more adamant commissioners who told countywide school board members they wouldn’t get $145 million extra.
“It made me quite angry,” Bunker said. “It appeared to me that they were trying to avoid having to make the tough decisions that they need to make and instead just handing us the bill.”
Thomas said the school system may get some new county funding and there may be a property tax hike.
“I will not vote for one at all,” he said. “They definitely don’t have the votes to get 10 percent. The best they can hope for is a 9.9 percent tax increase, which will give the schools around $45 million.”
The other two Republican commissioners who are part of the group of five are Heidi Shafer and Terry Roland. The sixth Republican commissioner who is not part of the group is chairman Mike Ritz. But he has also acknowledged that the votes are not there for a property tax hike of 10 percent or more.