Gift Horse

Monday's County Commission vote to fund schools should be looked in the mouth.



That unanimous vote on Monday by the Shelby County Commission to "fully fund" the educational needs of both the city and county school districts was a triumph of feel-good politics, but it remains to be seen what the lasting effect of it will be.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the vote, a glowing Carol Johnson, superintendent of Memphis schools, was cautious about claiming too much.
"I think that there's a high likelihood that we will get additional resources," the superintendent said. "Whether we'll get them at the level that we think we need them, I'm not sure about that. But I was truly encouraged today, and to see the unanimous feeling among the commissioners was really exciting." Asked whether the word "intent" should be interpreted liberally, Johnson answered, "Yes." She continued: "But I think the intent will result in additional funding, and I think that's good news for Memphis and Shelby County schools as well."

That was it in a nutshell. As Johnson's key words indicated, the outcome was wholly conditional, about as binding as my promise to gift each of you with some nice change for your Christmas socks if I happen to win the Tennessee lottery this week -- as I fully intend to do.

To be sure, there were those among the commissioners who intend, come what may, to vote for the additional sums -- $11.5 million for the city schools; $5.5 million for the county schools -- that the two systems evidently require.
There is Cleo Kirk, for example, the commission's longtime budget chairman, who made the motion for what was formally no more than a resolution of intent. There was commission veteran Walter Bailey, like Kirk a perennial champion of school-funding needs, who sought to reassure an auditorium packed with students, teachers, administrators, and other school supporters.

"You don't have to worry about me. I'm there," Bailey said.

But almost unnoticed amid the general celebration was the fact that such aye voters as Bruce Thompson and John Willingham put much of the onus on Shelby County mayor A C Wharton for following through on the funding requests.

Offering his congratulations to the two school systems for their "follow-through" on commitments made to the commission last year to hold down costs, Thompson went on to say that the commission's statement of intent was "not necessarily a commitment to new taxes." He went on: "What that means is more difficult decisions, more difficult efforts for us -- and cuts. We have to practice what we preach what we imposed on you."

Willingham was even more direct in an interview after the meeting: "If the mayor doesn't make some cuts in his budget, we can't do this," he said flatly.
Commissioner David Lillard had also offered his dose of cod-liver oil. To keep the promise, to fund the schools "at the levels that we all desire," required either raising taxes or cutting a general budget that has already been significantly pruned.

In any event, as everybody acknowledged later on, no part of Monday's vote required the commission to do anything or was binding in any respect whatsoever. In some ways, the affair was reminiscent of the ambitious state reading program proposed some years back by then Governor Don Sundquist, who hoped to use it as leverage to enact the income tax legislation he was then backing.

What happened was that the General Assembly indulged itself in happy-days rhetoric and endorsed the program with virtual unanimity, then went about its business, neither passing a tax increase that year nor bothering to fund the reading program -- which never came to be.
Still, as Thompson noted after the meeting, "There may be seven votes." Meaning seven commissioners (though not Thompson himself, in all probability) willing to vote at some point later on for a property tax increase to fulfill Monday's pledge.

That vote, if it happens at all, won't come nearly so easily as the one taken Monday.

n One spin-off of the commission vote was it seemed to offer encouragement to opponents of a current proposal to privatize the county's correction facilities.

Both Jeff Woodard and Warren Cole, spokesmen for the county's jail personnel, have become regular fixtures at commission meetings, making statements, usually at the end of the agenda, against the privatization proposal.

On Monday, Woodard and Cole joined in congratulating the two school systems for their budgetary efforts and suggested that similar economies practiced in Shelby County government at large would preclude a need for privatization.

Cole went so far as to blame much of the county's budget crisis on "these private contracts" and challenged a routine item on the commission's consent agenda, one calling for purchase of a tractor-flatbed that Cole suggested might be overpriced. (It turned out not to be, as he later acknowledged when figures were discussed, but Cole suggested that, even so, the commission was generally overlooking the need to vet such items.)

n Both Monday's commission meeting and last week's regular meeting of the Memphis school board were characterized by a challenge on another front, one not wholly substantiated by reality.

In testifying on behalf of school funding Monday, board member Stephanie Gatewood repeated a contention made last week by board president Wanda Halbert: That was the categorical statement that "no member of the media" had attended any of the city system's graduation events during the last two weeks.
Not true. Both as parents and reporters, media representatives were on hand for several of the ceremonies. A report by the Flyer's John Branston -- though perhaps not of the uncritical sort desired by the two board members -- is published in this week's issue. And The Commercial Appeal and several TV stations have provided coverage of graduation events as well.

n Though it ended with a predictable Democratic victory, the special election held earlier this month in Memphis' state Senate District 33 has ended up on the bragging board of the national Republican Party.

That contest, in which state representative Kathryn Bowers defeated the GOP's Mary Ann McNeil and two independents, was one of six special elections featured in a memo composed by Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.

"Local races and, in particular, special elections, give the RNC the opportunity to test new and improved targeting and tactics that we have been working on to improve since the 2004 election," Mehlman wrote, in extolling the outcome in District 33, along with results in local races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, and Nebraska.
What made the District 33 race worth celebrating, according to Mehlman and RNC communications director Brian Jones (both quoted in the Washington insiders' publication The Hill), was that the GOP was able to up its vote in the predominantly Democratic district by 10 percent. Shelby County Republican chairman Bill Giannini had made the same claim in the local party's newsletter, Trunkline News.

Said Giannini: "Republican candidates have ranged between 21 percent and 24 percent within District 33, while Mary Ann was able to get 36% of the vote." Local Democrats had noticed the increased Republican effort, especially in District 33's Collierville precincts, and had intensified their own efforts.
Commenting on the RNC's nationwide effort in special elections, Jones said that the aim had been to "take what worked in 2004 and modify it and use some of these races where we can test new, best practices with an eye on 2006 and 2008. The goal is that when an individual becomes the nominee in 2008, we will be able to hand off to them a ground game."

n Former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Sr., who celebrated his 60th birthday last week, was cited by another Washington insider publication, Roll Call, as a principal in what the periodical termed one of the 10 most important congressional races to have taken place since 1955, when Roll Call began publishing.

That race, in 1974, pitted Democratic challenger Ford, then a state legislator, against Republican incumbent Dan Kuykendall in what was Tennessee's 8th congressional district at the time and is now the 9th District. In 1974, African-American voters were 47 percent of the district's total -- still a minority.

Yet Ford was the winner by some 744 votes. "Observers said Ford probably would not have won had it not been for the Watergate scandal," Roll Call notes, though the periodical concludes, no doubt correctly, that a black Democrat would have won the seat shortly thereafter under any circumstances.

In any case, Ford, who went on to form a local political dynasty, became the first African-American congressman elected from Tennessee and only the third ever from a majority-white urban district in the South. Another milestone noted by Roll Call: "To this day, 1974 was the last time a Tennessee Congressman lost a re-election bid."

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