School Board Considers Funding Shifts

By Bill Dries

When countywide school board members begin considering changes Thursday, May 16, to the $1.18 billion budget proposal before them, there will be few easy choices.

Countywide school board members, including Diane George and Chris Caldwell, vote Thursday on a budget proposal. 

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

First reactions and questions from school board members Tuesday at the first of three board sessions this week revolved around ways to shift funding in order to expand pre-kindergarten to more schools.

School board member Tomeka Hart said she couldn’t vote for $16 million in “coaches” for teachers as part of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative over using at least some of the funding for a pre-K expansion.

“I will not support that,” she said. “I need a real clear explanation of that.”

Interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson also said he and his cabinet had found enough funding to add 29 more pre-kindergarten classes in the consolidated school system.

But Hopson warned it comes from Race to the Top funding from the federal government through the state that runs out at the end of the fiscal year that begins July 1. So, to continue the pre-K beyond the new fiscal year, the school board would be searching for a new source of funding.

“These cuts are going to hurt,” Hopson told the board at the outset of Tuesday’s session. “You’ll see and hear a ton of positions eliminated, a ton of programs eliminated. … Sometimes we used hedge clippers where scissors would have been better.”

The Shelby County Commission’s budget committee reviews the budget proposal May 22 that is approved Thursday by the school board.

And if the commission won’t fund the $35 million schools budget gap in the $1.18 billion budget plan, Hopson said he is prepared with even more painful cuts that will get the school system to whatever is necessary.

That could include doing away with the middle ground in classroom staffing levels between the two school systems that Hopson and his cabinet went for in the current budget proposal. Going to Memphis City Schools staffing levels at county schools, which would mean more students and fewer assistants per students, would save an additional $28.9 million.

“Now we didn’t think that was a good strategy,” Hopson said of his earlier consideration of the option. “It would literally cause some draconian cuts in some of the county schools. We didn’t think that was in the best interest of education.”

Schools resource officers and special education assistants also could be eliminated for further budget cuts.

Meanwhile, some board members also questioned $67.8 million in capital improvements project spending on three school projects in Shelby County outside Memphis. The projects are a new southeast elementary school in unincorporated Shelby County, phase two of school improvements at Millington Central High School and renovations at Germantown High School.

Several board members questioned whether the one-time capital funding should be spent since Millington and Germantown could become part of municipal school districts suburban leaders are moving toward forming in the 2014-2015 school year.

Suburban leaders have said their goal with the school districts is to also serve students outside the boundaries of their towns and cities who currently attend those schools, including students in unincorporated Shelby County.

“If the board says we shouldn’t move forward … that would make a lot of sense in this situation,” Hopson said, responding to a question posted by school board member Mary Anne Gibson about the Germantown renovations. “No, it’s probably not smart to do it at this time. … I think that’s a great discussion for the board.”

Hopson pointed out that the capital funding is money for one-time expenses and could not be used for the operating budget or toward the operating budget funding gap of $35 million.

The new funding gap total came Tuesday after Hopson told countywide school board members he and his staff had eliminated a “district initiative department” that would have cost $737,366.

Hopson also announced the school system has a waiver from the state that will allow it to use $9 million from the state in cost of living pay adjustments to level teacher and principal pay between the two existing school systems in the first school year of the merger, which begins Aug. 5. The balance of approximately $3 million left after that leveling, which is required by state law, would be put toward leveling pay among assistant principals.