Schools Move Focus to Early Childhood

By Bill Dries

The date still isn’t firm for the Nov. 21 ballot. But the campaign for a half-cent hike in the city’s sales tax rate to fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten in the city of Memphis is underway.

So are the complications that have been a close companion of the idea since it was first proposed a year ago and approved by the Memphis City Council.

That 2012 ballot question in Memphis was pre-empted when Shelby County Commissioners decided to exercise their option to move instead for a half-cent sales tax hike countywide. The ballot question, which was voted on by city of Memphis voters and those in unincorporated Shelby County, failed on general claims some of the revenue would be used by the countywide school system to fund early childhood programs.

This time, the citywide ballot question comes with specific wording referring to a trust fund and an appointed board to administer the trust fund specifically for an expansion of pre-kindergarten classrooms by City Hall, independent of the school system. But such a contract through the city of Memphis could be made with the school system.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. took another move to counter doubts about where the money goes with the Monday, Sept. 23, nomination of eight citizens to serve on the trust fund board. The nominations go to the council for confirmation.

It is about at this juncture that the complications begin for a referendum that will probably go on the Nov. 21 ballot with the special general election for state House District 91. City leaders have not yet confirmed the date. They had been hoping for an October election date to ensure the commission didn’t again pre-empt the city referendum.

When the countywide sales tax hike failed in November 2012, it meant the county couldn’t put a sales tax hike on the ballot for another year. The year is up Nov. 7, but there is little indication the commission will make a similar move in that direction.

Shelby County Schools board member David Reaves suggested last week the school board might urge the commission to do so. But Monday, Reaves waved off such a move, at least on his part.

Reaves said Monday that such a sales tax hike would affect the county’s six suburban towns and cities, “which I do not support.”

“I thought originally that it would be applied only to Memphis and unincorporated areas,” Reaves added in an email. “We can bid on the pre-K program that Memphis decides to fund if its referendum passes.”

A contract to operate pre-kindergarten services for the city of Memphis is one of two bids the school system is weighing in the latest indication of a shift in the reformation of public education in Shelby County beyond the merger of the two school systems.

Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson is considering a school system bid to take over the $23 million federally funded Head Start contract Shelby County government has administered for the last 10 years.

And the school system is being encouraged by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who says he is looking for a new entity that can expand Head Start service, including pre-kindergarten, to more children across Shelby County.


“I think we are going to have to go through a sea change in Shelby County as far as it relates to everything from early Head Start to Head Start to K-12 education,” he told County Commissioners last week. “It’s all very much a fluid issue.”

The commission approved Monday without debate a resolution urging the school system to apply to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by Oct. 22 for the contract.

In committee discussions the week before, commissioners differed on who they would like to see get the contract if the school system doesn’t. But they all agreed on the school system as a first choice.

Commissioner Melvin Burgess, who is audit director for the school system, was one of several commissioners who talked, as Hopson did, of aligning what is done in Head Start with the school district’s push to have every third-grader reading at grade level.

Literacy now dominates the school system’s intervention efforts with children.

“We want to expand it and make it better. I’m hoping that the Shelby County Schools do take it,” Burgess said. “Our kids can’t read.”

In his initial public comments on Head Start this month, Hopson said the school system would probably not run Head Start directly but would contract out with providers that would be held to higher standards aligned with the school system’s efforts.