VOL. 131 | NO. 99 | Wednesday, May 18, 2016
SCS Budget Quest About More Than Dollar Figures
By Bill Dries
When the Shelby County Commission meets next week to look over the budget proposal approved Monday, May 16, by the Shelby County Schools board, there will be a debate that goes beyond the bottom line dollar figures and line items.
It will be about intent, and the stakes are $27 million in new funding the school system is seeking from county government to close the gap between revenues and expenses in the $933.8 million operating budget.
“We, as board members, should ask for everything we need,” said school board member Stephanie Love just before the 8-0 vote Monday. “And let them say no.”
Commissioners will also be looking at the companion items on Monday’s agenda – proposals to close two low-performing, under-capacity high schools recommended by superintendent Dorsey Hopson.
The school board delayed a vote on closing Carver High School and voted to close Northside High School, but at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.
The board could vote on Carver as early as next week at its May 24 work session.
Both high schools were on a short list of proposed closings two school years ago, but both got reprieves from Hopson as the board seemed reluctant to approve closing them.
To some on the commission, those two school closings were a litmus test of how serious school leadership is about changing the system. And some were quick to say Monday evening that they believed the school board failed.
“Who is holding SCS accountable?” commissioner David Reaves posted on his Facebook account Monday evening. “Close Carver and Northside and get my support for some money. The education blight has to stop.”
Reaves, who chairs the commission’s education committee, is a former SCS board member.
School board member Kevin Woods replied to the Facebook post, writing, “It seems like only yesterday you were helping to make these decisions.”
“You’re painting such a broad brush my good friend,” Woods added.
Between now and May 25 when Reaves gavels to order his committee to take up the budget proposal, Hopson and Woods and others on the board hope to convince him and other commissioners the school system has made hard decisions.
Hopson points to $271 million the school system has cut in the last four years.
“We did adjust our insurance cost,” Hopson said of the board’s budget decision Monday. “The board did vote to close a historically very difficult school to close – two of them in fact. Clearly our board is not afraid to make tough decisions.”
The board voted Monday to close the Messick Adult Center and the Memphis Health Careers Academy at the end of the current school year next week. And last month, the board voted to close three charter schools – the operators are appealing the decision to the state.
Hopson also points to improving student achievement particularly at the SCS Innovation Zone schools, which are outperforming the state-run Achievement Schools District so far using the same state funding for extra teaching aides and autonomy, but without the use of charter schools.
“It’s really about these kids and we have kids who are living in extreme poverty – suffocating poverty,” Hopson said. “You have to provide a certain base level of support. … We’re a performance drive culture. … You look at the achievement test results last time. You look at the improving graduation rate. Those are things that the city and the district should be applauding, and also I think it’s worthy of additional investment by the county.”
At the outset Monday, Hopson called the board vote a “first step” in the process.
If the county commission doesn’t fully fund the school system’s proposal, the school system would then amend its budget to fit the amount of funding it gets from the county.
The school board has no taxing authority. The commission has no line item control of the SCS budget.
Hopson pointed out that the budget plan is $32 million less than the school system’s budget for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.
The debate next week is likely to be among commissioners as well. Commissioner Eddie Jones has said he believes the school system should be able to use its 78 percent share of $16 million in county wheel tax revenue for operations.
But the administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell wants that revenue, which is half of the $32 million generated by the wheel tax annually, to go instead to capital needs of the county’s seven public school systems. It would be split based on each system’s average daily attendance.
The schools budget includes $10.8 million in pay raises for teachers who are levels 3, 4 and 5 by state standards for teacher proficiency, which Hopson said is more than 80 percent of the teachers in the system.
Health care insurance benefits will include higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs that pay for an increase in the system’s cost for insurance coverage. The deductibles are less than those in the county government health insurance plan, which was one option the school system considered but ultimately rejected.