Representatives of the several branches of Shelby County government gathered Saturday for a “retreat” at the cavernous Memphis City Schools Nutrition Center on Jackson Avenue — the point being for the various parties to understand each other and, if possible, to bridge the gap on the financial shortfall facing the Shelby County Unified School Board.
Understand each other they did. Bridge the gap? Not a chance. Not just yet.
After listening to various county and school officials dissertate on such recondite matters as property assessment, methods of calculating tax rates, and the timetable of budgeting for Shelby County, various members of the Unified School Board and the County Commission traded perspectives on the current crisis, which has the Board asking the Commission for an additional $145 million in funding to pay for the 2013-14 school year.
Several members of the Commission — Chris Thomas, Wyatt Bunker, and Heidi Shafer — told the Board members bluntly that the chances of the Commission allocating that much money were nil.
Thomas, who served several years on the old Memphis City School board more than a decade ago, said that, at most, $45 million might be made available, but that the votes on the Commission simply weren’t there to go any higher.
Board member Jeff Warren, a holdover from the MCS side, attempted to explain why school closing, a remedy suggested by the resisting Commission members, might not be so simple a matter as they made out, insisting that cultural and neighborhood factors loomed large in such a decision.
Bunker in particular bore down on the matter, maintaining that the Board seemed to be evading hard choices of the sort that the Commission itself routinely faced and dealt with and told Warren that the Board should not conduct itself like an ‘employment agency.”
More of the same came from Shafer:
County Mayor Mark Luttrell, noting the discordant views and making the case for himself as a conciliator, talked about the impasse as one involving “two school systems” and “two values systems,” and argued that there had to be give-and-take on both sides.
Another commissioner, Steve Mulroy, a Democrat and a liberal who normally takes a different approach then the conservative Republican commissioners who had preceded him, reinforced their skepticism over school closing.
Supporting remarks made previously by Board member Martavius Jones, who had been on the former MCS board members pushing for school merger, Mulroy argued that the threatened fiscal shortfall was not primarily due to the merger. And he introduced a new issue, that of rumored legislation in Nashville regarding the potential transfer of school facilities to breakaway municipal school districts.
And, finally, Commissioner Steve Basar, chairman of the commission’s economic development committee, tried — as Luttrell had done — to square the circle and urged the Board to meet the objections of commissioners halfway by delaying certain cost-incurring measures and taking a step at a time, not trying to do everything "at Day One," in an effort to hold down budget.
In one sense, Saturday’s affair was a true meeting of minds. So far the possessors of those minds do not yet agree. But at least a dialogue had begun. Sometime before the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1, which is also the formal date set for final consolidation of city and county school systems, it will have to conclude.