When Memphis City Schools announced last month that it wanted to go ahead and take over Chimneyrock Elementary, Dexter Elementary, and Dexter Middle, the news came as a shock to area parents.
Only weeks before, the district had asked the county schools to keep Chimneyrock for a few more years. But, like most things these days, the decision came down to money.
"We just made a pitch to acquire three schools sooner rather than later," MCS superintendent Kriner Cash recently told members of the City Council, "and that will bring in more dollars."
Cash appeared before the council's education committee last week to discuss his reform agenda for the district, possible revenue streams, and the district's need for millions of dollars in city funding.
Last year, the council cut $66 million in funding to the district. The cut prompted a suit by the school system and then a countersuit by the city. But the wheels of justice are slow; closing arguments are scheduled for February 9th.
"We asked questions about what [the district] spends on salaries and positions at the board, and those answers were never received," council chair Myron Lowery testified last fall. "We asked what a 3 percent, a 5 percent, and a 10 percent cut would look like across all divisions. The board never provided those answers."
They say those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it; Cash is doing everything he can to change the future. He's already met individually with several councilmembers and, at last week's meeting, gave them a by-the-numbers presentation on problematic district data.
"I asked 60 questions specifically about the current status of our children," he told the council. "ACT scores, drop-out rates, and so forth. What is the crime rate in Memphis? What is the situation with single-parent homes?"
Sixty days later — or a day per question — he had his answers.
"When all the data came in, six main factors started to fall out," Cash said, including pre-K literacy, student health, students overage for grade level, and school safety.
The first priority — pre-K literacy — centers around the 40,000 childen under the age of 4 who will be coming to kindergarten without any "enriched pre-K" experience.
Many of the six factors that influence Cash's reform agenda are interrelated. The district says it has about 28,000 overage students: 9,000 in elementary schools, 9,000 in middle schools, and 10,000 in high schools.
"That is an astounding number," Cash says. "That means one in three of our students are overage."
Which relates back to pre-school preparation.
"When you come in under-proficient for kindergarten, you're retained in first grade ... then get retained in sixth grade. You're 14 or 15 and you're in sixth grade and you're angry."
The district also asked TennCare for data on the 60,000 MCS students enrolled in the program.
"It was stunning ... the array of health issues and how many children were being impacted," Cash said. Thirty-five percent of the district children on TennCare were at risk for being overweight or already obese. Nineteen percent, or almost one in five students, failed vision screenings.
"There's a lot of students who don't have eyeglasses," Cash said. "They can't read the paragraph they're being asked to read, not because they can't read, but because they can't see."
The data also showed high numbers of students with elevated blood pressure, mental health issues, and diabetes.
To combat the issues, Cash's reform agenda includes expanding the optional school program, adding 25 new pre-K classrooms in the fall, with an eye toward adding more in the next two years, preparatory academies for overage high school students, and four new school health clinics, one in each region of the district.
But it's going to take money, some of which is coming from private businesses and philanthropic foundations. But it's still not enough to make up for last year's cut.
"We are $70 million short," Cash told the council. "If we don't get resolution to that gap, we will be out of money by August 1, 2009."
On the other side of the equation, city funding could mean a sizeable tax increase in a faltering economy.
Looks like math is getting a little harder.