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VOL. 7 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 11, 2014

Luttrell Talks School Funding as Reformation Continues

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell says Shelby County has seen more change and movement in education than any other community in the country.

In just three years, Shelby County will have gone from two public school systems to a single public school system and then to seven public school systems.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell talked about school funding in the demerger of local public education during a state of the county address to the Memphis Kiwanis Club.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

And Shelby County government’s role in funding local public education is changing as well.

At the beginning of the three-year cycle of change, Shelby County was the dominant funder of the two school systems, providing all of the local funding for Shelby County Schools and most of the local funding for Memphis City Schools.

With the merger, Shelby County government became the sole local funder of the single school system.

And with the demerger of public education coming, Shelby County government will be funding seven school systems – six suburban school districts and Shelby County Schools.

“The discussion will be … collectively how the unified (county) budget is going to impact the budgets of the school systems and the municipalities,” Luttrell said. “It will be, I think, a much more comprehensive review of school funding than probably we’ve seen in quite a while because there are going to be seven systems instead of one.”

In addition to funding from Shelby County government, each of the six suburban school systems will be funded by local sales tax increases approved by each community’s voters in 2012 referendums as part of the process of forming the separate school districts.

“The jury is still out as to how much the municipal school systems are going to cost,” Luttrell said.

Leaders of the six school systems are awaiting updated feasibility studies from Southern Educational Strategies LLC, the consulting firm each hired in 2011 at the start of the move to create the suburban school systems.

The studies are being updated because the first reports in 2012 were based on student populations that included students in unincorporated Shelby County. But those students will remain in Shelby County Schools under terms of the agreement among Shelby County Schools, the Shelby County Commission, and suburban leaders including the school boards.

The process of building the new school districts began formally after the New Year’s holiday, with all six superintendents under contract.

“I think that we are going to have to really kind of let them take the lead on how their school system is going to work,” Luttrell said. “We will come in behind that and see how, from an educational standpoint, we can support them. Their schools will be dually funded. … They’ll be getting funding from many sources. … The money that we give to the municipalities is going to take away from the unified school system.”

Luttrell sees the role of county government and specifically his office as being similar to the role he took as the consolidated school system was being formed and suburban leaders began making plans for their own school systems.

“The future of education is going to lie in our ability to collaborate,” he said. “How can we get the school systems working in harmony when it comes to sharing services?”

The Shelby County Schools system will have fewer students, but fewer students doesn’t always translate to lower costs – especially fixed costs. That will be part of the case that SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson makes in pre-budget season talks with Luttrell that were already underway this month.

Luttrell talked about inefficiencies in Shelby County Schools and specifically mentioned underused school buildings, a point he made in planning ahead of the first year of the consolidated school system.

The Shelby County Schools board is considering closing 13 schools in the new school year that begins August. Public hearings on the newest additions to the list come later this month, and the board will on the total list in February.

Luttrell said he is looking into what role county government could play in the school system’s push to have all third-graders reading at grade level.

Hopson and the Shelby County Schools board are making detailed plans to start pursuing the ambitious goal in the new school year. Hopson has said the prospect of less county government funding is something that might mean rearranging priorities in the school district to keep the emphasis on the literacy goal.

Hopson has also talked of the possibility of using volunteer efforts, such as reading aloud to children, for parts of the campaign.

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