The Shelby County Election Commission hasn’t formally set the election date, but the campaign for passage of a half percent hike in the city sales tax is underway.
Proponents of the tax hike to fund pre-kindergarten programs in the city of Memphis rallied last week at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, and by the end of the week they were on the road speaking to civic groups.
“None of us like taxes any more than we have to have,” former Memphis City Schools board member Barbara Prescott said at her talk to the weekly meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club.
Prescott also headed the Transition Planning Commission that drafted the blueprint for the consolidated school system.
“But this would basically be a quarter for every $50 that you would spend,” she said. “I believe there are about 4,500 reasons to do that because in our city we estimate about 4,500 students presently are not placed in a 4-year-old pre-K program.”
The sales tax hike most likely will be on the Nov. 21 ballot already set for the special general election to fill the vacant state House District 91 seat.
The half percent sales tax hike would generate an estimated $47 million of revenue and $30 million of that would cover the cost of a pre-kindergarten expansion within the city of Memphis to reach an additional 4,500 4 year olds not now in pre-kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten is not mandatory in the state of Tennessee.
The remaining revenue not used for pre-kindergarten through a pre-K trust fund would go to reduce the Memphis property tax rate.
Prescott explained that the city’s commission on pre-kindergarten services would decide who gets the contract to run the pre-kindergarten centers, not the countywide school system. And she added Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. may appoint members to that commission, with City Council approval, before the referendum in a bid to bolster support for the tax hike based on who is on the commission.
The school system could be among the agencies the city would contract with to provide the services. But the pre-kindergarten expansion would be a city program.
“There are some things that will have to be worked out. It’s just a step,” she said of the referendum. “We know there is a lack of trust.”
It’s a point Prescott and other backers of the tax hike probably will have to make repeatedly.
“Is the city getting back in the education business?” someone at the Frayser luncheon asked. “We had a school system.”
“It really is helping prepare our children for school,” Prescott replied. “It is caring for our children and helping them be prepared for school.”
A group of 30 in a small back room of the Frayser restaurant where the Exchange Club meets also included day care center owners who are already pushing for a share of the pre-K business that would come if the tax hike passes.
Prescott and others favoring the pre-K expansion and funding it with a half cent extra on the local sales tax are still making the case for “yes” votes in November. Two points are that Memphians wouldn’t be the only citizens paying the tax and the tax hike comes with strings attached.
“There are thousands of individuals that come into our community every day to work and to use our entertainment and our assets. And this sales tax would be a way that everyone can contribute,” she said. “The ballot language says it would go into a pre-K fund – a fund designated for pre-K. By us having the ballot language that way, a future City Council would have a challenge if they tried to divert those funds in other ways.”