Commission Begins Busy Week on Schools Front

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners may not have much to say at their Monday, May 20, meeting about a critical decision to come on funding for the new consolidated school system.

That’s more likely to happen at a Wednesday committee session, where they will review the $1.18 billion budget proposal formally for the first time since it was approved Thursday by the countywide school board.

The county tax rate and budget are each up for the second of three readings at Monday’s meeting. So far, both ordinances are “fill in the blank” actions that now have tentative amounts in the blanks.

The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.

County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz indicated last week a second reading vote on the ordinances will probably be delayed Monday because of the plan Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell rolled out Wednesday to provide $20 million in new county funding.

The funding package, which includes a 6-cent property tax hike, would go toward a $35 million gap in the schools budget as it stands now. Luttrell also suggested the school system could use roughly $5 million in its reserves toward the gap. And the state last week turned up $4.8 million more in schools funding that will go toward the gap as well.

The county tax rate and budget are each up for the second of three readings at Monday’s Shelby County Commission meeting.

If the commission delays second reading on the tax and county budget ordinances Monday, it would push third and final reading on both to the last commission meeting in June. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Some commissioners were reluctant to go ahead and amend the tax rate and budget ordinances in committee for strategic reasons.

“Really the changes could be made later,” said Commissioner Heidi Shafer. “They don’t have to be made now.”

Other commissioners said it would be harder to muster seven votes to defeat an amended ordinance than to try to deprive the proposal of the votes to pass before the full commission.

An unlikely coalition had already started to form last week against the part of Luttrell’s plan that would mean $1 million more for Juvenile Court reforms and $1 million more for the Shelby County Defenders Office.

Commissioner Henri Brooks opposed the funding because she doesn’t think the reforms outlined in an agreement between Juvenile Court, the U.S. Justice Department and Luttrell’s administration go far enough to correct problems.

“I don’t like this,” she said in committee sessions last week. “I certainly do not like to give away taxpayer dollars and go up on taxes to fund an entity that has been totally negligent and had plenty of time to deal with this issue.”

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker is also opposed to the funding. But it is because he rejects the idea that there are problems the county and the court should fix.

“They didn’t reveal anything stunning to me,” Bunker said of the Justice Department investigators. “I’m really not willing to cooperate with them either. I’m kind of in the ‘bring it on’ stage.”

Meanwhile, Ritz argued the administration should have involved the commission in the settlement. If he had, Ritz said the commission likely would have advocated for trying to force the state of Tennessee to fund the defenders office.

Meanwhile, Monday’s commission agenda includes first readings of ordinances that would undo the county’s living wage ordinance as well as the requirements that those doing contract work for county government must either pay benefits to employees or provide health insurance.

The repeal moves come after the Tennessee legislature passed laws earlier this year that specifically ban local governments from taking such actions.

And the commission considers a resolution that would transfer $152,255 from the commission’s contingency fund to pay legal fees from the ongoing federal court lawsuit over schools consolidation and the formation of municipal school districts.

Last month the commission defeated a similar resolution.