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VOL. 131 | NO. 124 | Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Shelby County Budget Delay Centers on $3.5 Million for Schools

By Bill Dries

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Most of the declarations Monday, June 20, before the Shelby County Commission delayed final votes on local schools funding to next week came from the audience.

“For too long we’ve bled, died, cried and pled for education,” former Memphis City Council and Memphis City Schools board member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell told the commission.

She was one of numerous citizens who came to make the case for a full $24.7 million of new county funding for Shelby County Schools.

Former SCS member Vanecia Kimbrow called the full funding “a starting point to repair what is very wrong with our city.”

“It’s time-out for partisan politics,” she said. “Until we fix schools nothing else should be done.”

Shelby County Commissioners spent four hours at the county administration building Monday trying to put their budget season to rest after an eight-hour session the week before in committee. The body meets again next week.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

In the back of the commission chambers, uniformed deputy jailers and Shelby County Corrections Center officers were a large and different contingent, arguing for pay raises through a union leader.

School advocates argued that school funding should take priority over criminal justice system and prison funding as a definitive policy shift and a funding choice.

At issue is where $3.5 million will come from to reach full funding for schools, a relatively small amount in the overall $1.16 billion county government budget and an SCS budget that is just below $1 billion.

The commission will try to reach or confirm a consensus Wednesday in an 8 a.m. committee session to be followed by a special meeting of the full commission at 11 a.m. that same day.

Monday’s delay in advance of the July 1 start of the new fiscal year signaled a renewed press by the administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell to get the commission to reject $3.5 million more in county funding for SCS.

The school system would come up with the remaining $3.5 million to get the $24.7 million it is seeking from county government in new funding.

“We’re reneging on what we agreed to,” commissioner Willie Brooks said of last week’s compromise.

County Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy said it was commissioners who reopened the budget after the compromise had a very short life as a done deal in committee.

“We’re reconsidering,” he said of the administration’s position. “It takes us out of balance. … What can we afford in the existing revenue stream?”

The 50-50 split of the $7 million difference between the administration’s last position and the school system’s last position was part of a compromise most commissioners backed last week. But the compromise began to unravel in the time between the Wednesday committee session and the Monday meeting of the full commission.

“Let’s gut it out,” Luttrell said Monday. “I’m so concerned we are going to reinvent the wheel if we come back next week.”

But some on the commission, including commissioner David Reaves, would like to see a unanimous commission vote on the school funding compromise. Reaves said Monday that at least a seven-vote majority was in place to approve the compromise and the overall county budget with it.

Commission chairman Terry Roland said Tuesday the commission will meet Wednesday until it has a budget and urged commissioners with proposed amendments to have them in writing before the gavel falls on the special meeting.

"If you think that the meeting will last longer than a day, please bring a suitcase with a change of clothing because we won't stop until we have a budget," Roland wrote in a memo to all commissioners. "If you thinki that the meeting will last longer than one day, please bring two sets of clothing."

Kennedy said if the commission approves $24.7 million in new funding for SCS, the administration could shift several pennies on the county property tax rate to education from other allocated areas without raising the overall county tax rate of $4.37.

Commissioners are also considering the passage of a continuation budget that would keep county finances running at the same funding levels as the budget year that runs out July 1.

Kennedy said a continuation resolution is one of the options he is keeping “in my back pocket.”

“If you had $3.5 million in your back pocket, that would make it a whole lot easier,” Roland replied.

“Essentially that’s what the hang up is,” SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson said of the amount.

A $16 million shift in wheel tax revenue from county debt service to schools operating expenses wasn’t questioned Monday by commissioners and some were ready to vote separately and set that piece of the compromise in political stone.

But others argued that the budget and its funding should be approved as one piece in a series of votes.

Hopson said if the school system doesn’t get the last $3.5 million, he will adjust the school system’s budget.

“We’ll just be patient and see what the final number is,” he said. “We obviously are willing to talk to anybody about anything. But I think at the end of the day, we try to be very clear about the cuts we’ve made over the years.”

Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Eddie Jones are seeking an agreement that would prevent the administration from taking the overage in revenue streams dedicated to local schools and applying them to other areas, at least without commission approval.

Both have pointed to the administration’s decision to use revenue that came in above what was projected to fund local education toward the county’s overall debt.

The administration’s argument has been that the county funded the dollar amounts for local education that were in the budget and that is the purpose of a county operating budget.

Shafer and Jones argue, however, that the revenue streams are defined as education funding, so extra revenue should still go to education, or at least not automatically go someplace else without the commission voting on it.

Both agreed Monday that the best way to make that happen is in a separate resolution and not as part of the county property tax rate or budget resolutions.

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