Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wiggle Room

If an appellate court doesn't know how many children are enrolled in MCS, who does?

Posted By on Thu, Jan 21, 2010 at 4:00 AM

The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled against the city of Memphis in the Memphis City Schools funding case last week, but in its ruling, it overstated enrollment by more than 7,000 students.

The error raises doubts about the accuracy of MCS enrollment reports and could give the Memphis City Council some wiggle room in negotiations with the school board.

The appeals court wrote that MCS serves approximately 112,000 students, but the system has not been that large for several years. According to the MCS website, the system has "about 105,000" students. The Tennessee Report Card says the actual number is 104,829 students.

The per-pupil funding (from all sources) for MCS is $10,394. (For comparison, Davidson County/Nashville is $10,495 and Shelby County is $8,198.) Multiply that by 7,171 — the difference between the report card enrollment and the number the appeals court uses — and the result is approximately $75 million.

If the state Court of Appeals, which had months to review this case, doesn't know how many students there are in MCS, you have to wonder whether anyone does.

That should get members of the City Council doing some homework and demanding some answers before raising anyone's taxes and forking over more than $100 million to MCS for last year and this year. If MCS has been overstating its enrollment, then the system may not be due any extra funds.

MCS enrollment has long been a guessing game, with the difficulty compounded by population movement and the fact that there have been three superintendents in the last three years. Kriner Cash is in his second year. Dan Ward had the job in 2007-2008, and Carol Johnson was superintendent from 2003 to 2007.

For reporters, it takes a Freedom of Information Act request to the communications office under Cash to get this basic piece of information. You can find numbers as high as 118,000 and as low as 103,000 in various press reports, report cards, and MCS publications in recent years.

One thing is clear: The trend is down. In 2007, according to the Tennessee Report Card, MCS had 110,753 students.

But fewer students doesn't mean fewer teachers and administrators or school closings. The opposite is true. In 2007, MCS had 6,438 teachers and 359 administrators. In 2009 — with enrollment down 4 percent — MCS had 7,259 teachers and 439 administrators. And instead of closing underused schools, MCS built two new ones — Manassas High School and Douglass High School — which were well under capacity last fall.

The total proposed MCS budget for 2008-2009 was $931,966,343. The state funds 48 percent of that and Shelby County 29 percent.

The city has funded as much as 10 percent in recent years but reduced its contribution in 2008, sparking the lawsuit. Instead of appropriating the $84 million it gave MCS in 2007-2008, the Memphis City Council cut the appropriation to $27 million. MCS wants $57 million in make-up money for 2008-2009 and even more for this year and next year. A special property tax increase could be the only way to get it.

But wait a minute.

The appeals court and the Chancery Court in Memphis ruled that Memphis has a statutory school-funding obligation called "maintenance of effort." But there is an exception, which the appeals court noted near the end of its ruling:

"Revenue derived from local sources must equal or exceed prior year actual revenues — excluding capital outlay and debt service and adjusted for decline in average daily membership."

In other words, revenue can decline if enrollment declines.

The Memphis City Council should bring Superintendent Cash and his lieutenants to City Hall and ask them this:

What is the current enrollment, and how do you know this?

What was the enrollment for the last five years?

Why did MCS build Manassas High School and Douglass High, at a cost of more than $45 million?

What are your plans for closing schools in parts of the city where there are not enough students to fill them?

How much enrollment gain in MCS is due to annexation? Shelby County has been operating schools in annexation areas for years, then turning them over to MCS. Next up in the batting order is Southwind High School, with nearly 1,500 students.

Before we can decide how much funding Memphis schools are entitled to, and how the costs should be borne by city and county taxpayers, we have to have accurate enrollment numbers and an explanation for discrepancies.

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