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VOL. 133 | NO. 45 | Friday, March 2, 2018

Council and Commission Talk Pre-K and Workforce By The River

By Bill Dries

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When 20 of the 26 Memphis City Council members and Shelby County Commissioners got together Thursday, March 1, at Beale Street Landing, the idea of some kind of county government funding for expanding access to pre-kindergarten ran into some resistance on the county side.

Council members and commissioners both expressed concerns about the approach to building the local workforce and the types of jobs the city is trying to attract.

Memphis City Council member Philip Spinosa and Shelby County Commissioner Mark Billingsley confer during the Thursday, March 1, joint session of the two elected bodies at Beale Street Landing. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

The session organized by commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer and council chairman Berlin Boyd was discussion only with no proposals made and no votes taken among the two bodies.

A city proposal to fund prekindergarten in the city is due in April and at this point council members backing the idea of raising more money for more prekindergarten classrooms and making up for the potential loss of $8 million in federal grant funding that runs out in 2019 are simply looking for general support.

But that didn’t stop the discussion about possible county government funding of the effort.

“The city could take the lead on this,” Shafer said, noting county government is the only local funder of Shelby County Schools and is a local funder of the six suburban school systems. “With all respect, we have a heavy, heavy lift with k-12.”

But commissioners Van Turner and Willie Brooks said the county should do “whatever we can do,” according to Brooks, toward the prekindergarten goal.

“I think we need to look at education as an investment instead of an expense,” council member Martavius Jones said.

Jones was critical of county mayor Mark Luttrell for being too focused on paying down the county’s debt.

“What’s the use of me having an 800 credit score if my child needs ACT prep and I’m not spending the money on ACT prep,” he said. “But I think what has been the priority has been paying down debt. When you do that you are not making investments in children.”

“Every city in Shelby County is investing in education except Memphis,” commissioner Terry Roland countered.

County commissioner David Reaves said Shelby County Schools needs a basic reorganization that focuses on high schools.

“The bigger need now is what’s happening at Westwood and Hamilton and Douglass. We don’t have parity amongst the high schools in Memphis and it’s impacting our kids,” he said. “We have to come together to force the changes in Shelby County Schools … to where we can make educational opportunity equal.”

He also said the county is “hamstrung” by the state law requiring a certain level of county funding for schools called “maintenance of effort” that can’t be reduced.

He specifically mentioned the “windfall” Roland said SCS is getting from charter schools that predicted a higher enrollment than they actually got, resulting in what Roland said is a windfall for Shelby County Schools.

“Put yourself in our place,” Reaves said. “If you approve a budget and set a tax rate and enrollment numbers are projected low and ultimately they come in higher, the school system gets a windfall. … We have no means to modify the amount we put in.”

He suggested a state law that allows the county to recapture the money and make grants in other areas related to education.

But backers of some county funding for prekindergarten argue the effort requires a revenue stream and not one time sources of revenue that may not be there in the next fiscal year.

Roland warned against a county property tax increase as the revenue stream.

“South of Collierville is a place called Lewisburg, Mississippi. They just built their third school,’ he said. “They pay one-third the property taxes we pay here in Shelby County and they can get on 385 and be anywhere in 30 minutes. That’s our competition folks.”

That pointed the group toward conversation about economic development with Jones immediately renewing his long-held belief that the city and county approach to workforce development is aimed at the wrong kind of work.

“I don’t want to compete with Mississippi,” he said. “For the jobs that will go to Mississippi – let them go.”

The commissioners and council members also questioned the relevance of the Workforce Investment Network and the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce. WIN is funded with federal grants. GMACW was recently folded into EDGE – Economic Development Growth Engine – the city-county economic development organization that grants tax abatements.

WIN’s director Kevin Woods recently left that position and GMACW was folded into EDGE after its director Glen Fenter left the agency.

Shafer said with those changes, a re-examination of both agencies and their relevance is in order.

Reaves said both efforts may have become irrelevant with the start of state government programs like Tennessee Promise that offer a last dollar scholarship to any Tennessee high school graduate for two free years of community college or at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology.

That’s recently been extended to Tennesseans who left college before graduation.

“I think the reality is we have so many distribution type of jobs that we’ve abated with PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) now that it’s probably time to turn the spigot off,” he added.

Robinson agreed.

“I would like to encourage us not to bring another warehouse that pays $8.25 an hour and think we have done something to eradicate poverty in our city,” she said. “It just won’t happen.”

Jobs that pay the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour cannot qualify for PILOTs.

Jones argued that $12 an hour jobs aren’t enough either for the city to grow economically and for working Memphians to find their way out of poverty.

Boyd said the conversations between the two groups were useful even with the disagreements.

“We have not collectively worked together. In our city and county we are divided and everyone works in silos. If we are to come up with solutions,” he said. “We must come up with moon missions. How do we progress? How do we work toward a common goal to see our city and county succeed? But one thing we cannot do is eliminate our corporate partners. We need corporate partners to provide our jobs for people to work.”

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