In the end, the Memphis City Schools board ratified its deal with the City of Memphis. The Board’s special meeting on Tuesday night was in marked contrast to the high-intensity session conducted a week ago Monday, when members voted 8-1 to demand $55 million from the City, with an “or else” being that they might cancel the school year otherwise.
The difference was spoken to by Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., a dependable firebrand who was in the forefront of those insisting last week on presenting the City with a financial ultimatum. “Y’all supported me last time; so I’m with you on this tonight,’ Whalum told his colleagues, making the Board’s vote to approve a new arrangement with the City and to “reinstate” the school year, with the original opening day of August 8 restored.
But Whalum made his vote contingent on “four conditions” — that the City Council approve the MCS operating budget at its forthcoming August 2 meeting; that the Council approve the same agreement being considered Tuesday night by the school board; that the City keep to the payment schedule provided for in the agreement; and that, in particular, the first installment of $15 million ($3 million of which has already been paid) be made over by August 5 — three days before the scheduled start of school.
Otherwise, said, Whalum, he would vote to revoke the agreement and to cancel the opening of schools on August 8. He would also threaten to change his vote on the agreement Tuesday night to No if schools superintendent Kriner Cash, whom the Board consulted by speaker phone, could not agree that no programs would be slashed because of a concession to the City Council to accept a reduced annual payment for 2011-12. The ostensibly lower amount is $68.5 million, down from the $78 million figure customary for the City’s court-ordered “maintenance-of-effort” payment. The reduction is based on the fact of lower school enrollment.
Cash had earlier declined to guarantee that programs would not be cut because of the lesser amount but would alter his estimate in the direction of a guarantee, indicating that MCS might have to draw on its fund balance.
The fact is, however, that the City will end up paying the customary $78 million as usual (a fact noted out loud Tuesday night by Board member Jeff Warren). The odd ten million will merely be applied to what MCS considers an arrearage for the previous two fiscal years.
Though Board attorney Dorsey Hopson spoke of “kinks” still to be worked out, there was no controversy or debate about the essential terms, which require that the City pay 85 percent of this year’s full amount by October 7.
All in all, the Board conducted itself like a body which had played a game of high-stakes chicken and come out the winner. One by one, the Board members spoke in support of the agreement with the City, identical more or less to what was stipulated at the Council’s education committee meeting last week. There was little gloating over what seemed to some a cave-in by Mayor A C Wharton and the Council, although Board member Stephanie Gatewood pointedly wondered at one point what was stronger, “an agreement or a court order.”
In fact, the Board now has both. In the lexicon of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the other fellow had blinked.
On hand to witness the Board’s ratification rites were new interim city councilman Berlin Boyd, State Representative Mark White, and Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, among others.
Boyd was the subject of accolades from Whalum, who went on to celebrate the fact that eight members of the Council had drawn opponents in this year’s election. White is a Republican whose 83rd House of Representatives district straddles East Memphis, Cordova, and Germantown, and who was a supporter of the suburban-friendly Norris-Todd bill on school merger. “Just staying informed,” he said of his attendance Tuesday night.
Harvey, a candidate himself for Memphis mayor, gave some such motive, as well, but he made it clear that he thought mistakes by Wharton, including that of allowing the current funding crisis to develop, would be issues in his mayoral campaign.