VOL. 131 | NO. 96 | Friday, May 13, 2016
Shelby County Schools Board Eyes Wheel Tax to Bridge Budget Gap
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Schools board members are looking at the county wheel tax to bridge some, but not all of the $27 million gap in their still tentative budget for the new fiscal year.
The specific solution they are looking at is the half of the $32 million in annual revenue from the wheel tax that Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has proposed go instead to capital projects across all seven public school systems in Shelby County. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
The other $16 million in wheel tax revenue already goes to schools operations. Luttrell wants to take the remaining $16 million that now goes to pay the county’s debt service and devote it to schools construction and renovations.
But SCS board president Teresa Jones said Thursday, May 12, she thinks it should instead go to closing the gap in the school system’s operating budget.
“Certainly I would be in support of that. I know we have dire capital needs,” Jones said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program Behind The Headlines. “But I also think there are other ways we could fund those capital needs other than that money.”
There is some sentiment among Shelby County commissioners to do just that as well. Commissioner Eddie Jones suggested it at Monday’s commission meeting.
County chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy said the commission could allocate wheel tax money that way, but it is not the administration’s preference.
SCS board member Chris Caldwell said that’s because the six suburban school districts need the funding for schools construction.
“It is very significant that they are trying to put the money in capital improvement funds,” Caldwell said. “In the municipalities, they don’t need any more operating funds. They need money for buildings. … My question is, why are we over-servicing debt and underfunding schools.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, airs Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 8:30 a.m.
The $16 million would be split among the county’s seven school systems on the basis of each system’s average daily attendance. That means 78 percent of it – or $12.5 million – would go to Shelby County Schools.
“Even if that happens, we’ll still have to go to the table and find additional cuts,” Jones said of the conversion to operating funding.
School board members, including Miska Clay Bibbs, are pushing for full Shelby County funding of the $27 million gap without further cuts by the school system, and little or no use of the school system’s reserve fund, which was tapped in the current fiscal year to the tune of $36 million.
“We have done so much cutting, after a certain point you have to figure out how to stop the bleeding,” she said. “We are at the bone now.”
Bibbs also said the school system’s results, particularly in its Innovation Zone schools, should be taken into account in the push for increased county funding of the school system.
The I-Zone schools are outperforming the state-run Achievement Schools District. Both sets of schools are turnaround models for schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of student achievement. They get extra state funding for teacher aides to intervene more rapidly with students who are falling behind. Principals also have more autonomy.
SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the budget proposal with the $27 million gap to school board members Wednesday. The board votes on the plan Monday in a special board meeting.
If approved there, the budget proposal goes to the Shelby County Commission for funding. If the commission comes back with a lower level of funding, the school board would then consider amending the schools budget to make it fit the funding approved by the county.
Early in the budget process, Hopson had outlined $50 million in possible cuts that would have cut classroom programs.
The new proposal keeps many, but not all of the items that were at risk. The items that remain in the budget that had been on the block for possible cuts include: reading teachers for I-Zone schools, the cost of longer school days at I-Zone schools, CLUE program positions, and bus transportation for students who live beyond a certain distance from a school. The area beyond the schools where the school system does not offer bus transportation is referred to as a “parental responsibility zone” and Hopson had originally considered moving the border of that zone closer to schools.
The budget proposal unveiled Wednesday also includes $10.8 million in teacher pay raises, but teachers would pay higher deductibles on health insurance coverage.
Hopson decided ultimately to not switch health care coverage to Shelby County government’s health insurance plan because of even higher deductibles and out of pocket costs.
The bulk of the cuts to get the budget to a $27-million funding gap come from various divisions of the school system as well as cutting 183 positions in the school system’s administration. Of the total number of jobs cut, 122 are unfilled positions.
“We started off asking everybody to bring 10, 15 and 20 percent cuts,” Hopson said. “Once they did it, we sat down together to figure out where we could actually make the cuts and where we could make even more cuts. Once we put the list of cuts together, we cross-checked them with the priorities in the strategic plan and prioritized cuts that would have the least impact on the classroom.”