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VOL. 128 | NO. 102 | Friday, May 24, 2013

Funding Conundrum

County Commission examines schools budget proposal

By Bill Dries

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There were times this week at the Shelby County Commission when the debate over school funding and the schools merger made the superintendent of the consolidated school system more spectator than presenter.

Interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson takes the consolidated school system’s $1.18 billion budget proposal to the Shelby County Commission Wednesday, May 22.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson drew good reviews on his budget effort from commissioners with very different opinions about the proper level of school funding and the wisdom of the merger.

Hopson emphasized that he and his cabinet cut 1,271 positions and contrasted the school board’s original “ask” of $145 million in new funding in February with the $30,189,716 gap between revenues and expenses in the budget presented Wednesday. He termed it a “responsible ask.”

“We’re willing to stand tall,” Hopson told the commission. “The only place we can go now to make cuts is in the classroom.”

That would mean going to Memphis City Schools staffing levels in the former county schools with more students per teacher.

“That sounds kind of intimidating,” Commissioner Terry Roland said of the option.

“I’m not trying to scare anybody,” Hopson said. “That’s just where we are.”

In February, the school board’s $145 million “ask” wasn’t formally rejected by commissioners at their budget retreat. But enough expressed the opinion that it was unlikely to pass that the school board got the political message.

After Wednesday’s session attended by 12 of the 13 commissioners, none said the $30 million “ask” was unlikely to win approval. That’s not to say commissioners didn’t debate school funding and what the county funding would be used for.

“We’re a layer of scrutiny,” Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said. “And I’m going to do so in a pretty tough way.”

“The merger to me is destroying Shelby County Schools,” Commissioner Chris Thomas said at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour session. “That doesn’t mean we don’t care about children.”

Thomas was responding after Commissioner Sidney Chism, however, countered that the budget proposal is “reasonable.”

“Some of my colleagues don’t want to give you a dime,” he said. “They don’t care if the school system folds up.”

Thomas, Bunker and Roland were the most outspoken commissioners at the budget committee meeting. But they weren’t the only commissioners with different ideas about some of the line items.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy pushed back on the three school start times that begin with the Aug. 5 start of the first merger school year. He particularly objected to an early start time for teenagers in high schools.

The school system’s case was helped by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposal last week to raise the county property tax rate by 6 cents, above a recertified tax rate of $4.32 from the existing rate of $4.02. The recertified rate is the tax rate that it is estimated would produce the same amount of revenue for the county as the existing rate taking into account the 2013 property reappraisal.

With the revenue from the 6-cent property tax increase above the recertified rate and an $11.6 million in additional revenue projected by Luttrell that hadn’t been anticipated, Luttrell’s package would create an additional $20 million of funding for the schools budget. That would leave a $10 million gap that Luttrell and Hopson have said could involve the school system using its reserve funds or combining some smaller amount of the reserves with some minor additional budget cuts.

Thomas, a former Memphis City Schools board member, opened the questioning with a long list of questions from band instrument repair funding to accounting charges listed as “other charges” in the budget to 140 schools security positions.

“We have some tough schools,” Hopson replied to the question about the need for the in-house security services in addition to Sheriff’s deputies who will serve as resource officers in schools across the consolidated school system. “Safety and security is of paramount importance.”

Bunker, a former Shelby County Schools board member and head of security at a local hospital, questioned the pay of schools security head Gerald Darling who took a pay cut recently from $175,000 to $159,000 but makes more than Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong.

“That to me is not a good sign – 140 employees and $159,000,” Bunker said. “We’re not worth that.”

He also questioned the need for the school system to have its own planning department when city and county government have a joint Office of Planning and Development. Bunker conceded there might be a need for a planning consultant.

“A consultant comes with an expiration date,” he said of the benefits he sees. “I don’t like that. We’re still not there.”

There will be one more review of the schools budget, according to County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz, before a committee vote on a recommendation and a vote by the full commission next month.

PROPERTY SALES 57 280 1,209
MORTGAGES 55 244 916