School Funding Lessons

As school board runs out the clock, the Memphis City Council runs out of options.



It was child's play, really. The Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., the class cutup on a school board of goody two-shoes, had two motions he wanted to make at Monday's meeting. One was on corporal punishment; the other was on reinstating teachers' aides who lost their jobs in budget cuts. They were prompted, Whalum said, by a meeting he had with teachers and interested parties earlier this month.

But Superintendent Kriner Cash took him to school. Filibustering members of Congress should take notes. The meeting lasted for four hours, which is not a record for school board meetings by a long shot. A student musical group performed. Videos were shown. Thirty-six principals were introduced, and each one had their picture taken and shook hands with Cash. Various academic programs were summarized in PowerPoint presentations. Citizens and aggrieved former school-system employees each had their three-minute say.

By the time Whalum made his motions, which were seconded by board member Sharon Webb and put on the July agenda, most of the crowd that had packed the auditorium earlier had gone home, including a dozen or so teacher aides carrying signs that said "Keep Us Working, Students Learning." Under the Cash plan, they will be replaced by volunteers and paid "educational interventionists."

Score another one for the superintendent. If, as appears likely, Memphis City Schools gets its billion-dollar budget through the Memphis City Council unscathed plus another $57.4 million in back payments, it will be due in large part to two things: the council's lack of direct control over the school budget and Cash's ability to manage the school board, the teachers' union, and the media.

Memphis City Schools had operating expenses of $1,036,319,007 in fiscal year 2009. The budget is basically bulletproof "for the sake of the children." But there aren't as many children as there used to be. The Achilles' heel in the budget is student enrollment, which has been going down for several years while the number of administrators, schools, teachers, and per-pupil spending has been going up.

Cash and his staff have done a masterful job of confusing the issue. Reporters trying to get a definitive enrollment number are told to file a Freedom of Information Act request. City Council members don't fare much better. Councilman Shea Flinn needed three tries to get the MCS chief financial officer to turn over current financial estimates. When he got them, they gave the "weighted full-time equivalent average daily attendance" for 2009 as 127,073 and the "average daily membership" for 2010 as 107,738.

The most recent Tennessee Report Card, which is the state jargon-free standard for enrollment and other school-system data, says the 2009 MCS enrollment was 104,829, down from 110,753 in 2007. During that time, the number of schools has increased from 194 to 199, teachers from 6,438 to 7,259, administrators from 359 to 439, and per-pupil spending from $9,254 to $10,394.

The bigger the enrollment, the more money MCS can get from the state and the city of Memphis. An MCS report that was given to Flinn says that "a financial solution cannot come from external sources alone; it also must come from within, by confronting complex structural problems."

Two years ago, the City Council, rashly perhaps, cut the city's contribution to MCS while giving city employees raises and adding some new programs. The net effect was a lower tax rate, but it was short-lived. State courts ordered the money reinstated.

At press time, Councilman Jim Strickland was going to reopen the discussion in the council meeting Tuesday. Options include paying the $57.4 million over three years (Flinn's idea), taking back part of the pay raises granted to city employees in 2008 (Stickland's idea), pressing the lawsuit in hopes that the state Supreme Court will overturn the lower court, and restarting discussions of shifting the funding responsibility to Shelby County (The Commercial Appeal's idea), possibly with a public referendum (Councilman Harold Collins' idea).

Or the council could vote to raise city property taxes (the school board's idea). Memphis residents pay a combined city and county tax rate of $7.22, the highest in the state. Unpopular as it is, a tax increase is the most likely outcome. As we all learned in school, you are not going to win an argument when the teacher, principal, and superintendent are on the other side.

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