VOL. 129 | NO. 94 | Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Schools Funding Compromise Avoids Legal Complications
By Bill Dries
Don’t expect to see construction work begin immediately at a school near you. But the Shelby County Commission’s approval Monday, May 12, of $52.1 million in capital funding for all seven of the public school systems in the county breaks the two-year intermission on schools construction funding that began with the 2011 move to a schools merger in Shelby County.
It also taps into capital funding Shelby County government had set aside and it came with some surprises.
Shelby County Commissioners said they didn’t realize the $5 million they approved in March as the last piece of public financing for the Crosstown redevelopment project came from the $55 million in schools construction funding the county was holding in reserve.
For that reason, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell had been trying to hold the schools capital spending to no more than $50 million, although he proposed a much smaller amount of $16.9 million in funding, which was voted down by the commission for the larger amount.
“We were taking money from schools,” Commissioner Mike Ritz said of the Crosstown spending. Ritz proposed Monday’s compromise, which gave roughly $1 million capital funding to each of the six suburban school systems including a new roof at $1 million for Millington Central High School that was in the Shelby County Schools list of projects.
“I don’t see haircutting the Shelby County Schools to help the suburbs,” Ritz said of the $50 million cap and the Crosstown spending’s impact. “Why didn’t you shortcut a highway project or a roof at the penal farm?”
Other commissioners who voted for the Crosstown funding said they wouldn’t have voted for it if they had known it came out of schools capital funding.
“We got tremendous leverage for our $5 million,” Commissioner Steve Basar countered. “It wasn’t taking money away from the schools. It wasn’t taking money away from the children. Frankly, up until last week there wasn’t anything going to the schools.”
County Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy told commissioners and schools officials Monday that the administration could work with the $52.1 million amount approved and adjust the rest of the capital spending accordingly.
Commissioner Heidi Shafer was among those on the commission who urged staying within the $50 million limit on schools within the county’s debt reduction policy that caps all capital spending at $75 million.
“You stick to a debt reduction plan,” she said as she proposed shaving $2 million from Shelby County Schools spending on Germantown High School to leave it for the new fiscal year. “It’s a reasonable plan to do some of everything we can do.”
Her amendment was voted down.
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said there is still some planning and design work to come on the projects on the SCS list including a new Westhaven Elementary School to replace the existing Westhaven school and two other nearby elementary schools in the southwest Memphis area. It also includes additions of 20 classrooms each at four other elementary schools.
“There’s been a lot of planning that’s going on already,” he added. “It takes about 18 months to two years to build a new school. So we are just going to try to get as many things done as quickly as possible.”
Commissioner Sidney Chism voted for the compromise proposed by Ritz after saying the suburban towns and cities “have got a tax base that they can reach out to and fund their schools.”
Shelby County Schools leaders wanted the capital funding before the end of the current fiscal year to avoid having to split such funding with the suburban school systems proportionately based on average daily attendance for each school system.
SCS leaders and attorneys for county government believed that legally there didn’t have to be an average daily attendance split before June 30. But attorneys for all six suburban school systems issued their own legal opinion reflecting their belief that it did have to be split based on average daily attendance.
The compromise funding package approved Monday avoids a possible lawsuit by the suburban schools on the point even though it isn’t a proportionate split.
Attorney Chris Patterson, who represented Arlington Schools leaders, said the compromise is acceptable.
“It isn’t as much as an ADA share but given the county attorney’s opinion, I think most commissioners came forward with giving $5 million but not a full ADA share,” he said. “Everybody gets what they need.”
Shelby County Schools board Chairman Kevin Woods said the board and school system administration took the position that they wouldn’t oppose that share to the suburbs.
“We had indicated as a board as well as the administration that as long as we did not take from the schools we had already approved that we would not oppose any ask that came from the municipalities,” Woods said.