In the next few weeks, The Memphis City Council should give its own Gateway exam to Superintendent Kriner Cash, who is asking the council to give Memphis City Schools an additional $120-$130 million or so over the next two years plus $50 million to cover “shortage” from last year.
All of that will likely mean a property tax increase for Memphis residents who already pay by far the highest property tax rate in Tennessee.
Memphis is already losing population and becoming increasingly isolated politically from the rest of Shelby County and Tennessee. A tax-increase of a few hundred dollars a year isn’t going to break many people, but it will send a message about how the city and the school system respond to a real budget crisis.
MCS has a billion-dollar-a-year budget. Before adding to it, which might or might not be the right call, city council members should ask Cash some questions:
* What is the MCS enrollment, and how do you know? Why did the State Court of Appeals, which ought to know better, use an MCS enrollment number that was off by more than 7000 in its recent decision on school funding?
* If MCS, as appears to be the case, overstated enrollment for several years by several thousand students, why doesn’t it owe the state and city a refund?
* The Tennessee Report card shows that enrollment is 104,829 in 2009 and 110,753 in 2007. But there were more administrators (439 to 359), schools (199 to 194), teachers (7,259 to 6,438), and per-pupil spending ($10,394 to $9,254) in 2009 than in 2007. Why is that?
* MCS is scheduled to take over three-year-old Southwind High School, which is now a Shelby County school in an annexation area. Southwind is nearly all-black in a county system that is 37 percent black. Any idea what’s going on here?
* How many schools are less than two-thirds full? How many are less than half full? What are you doing about it?
* The report card says 100,617 of the 104,829 students in MCS are “Title 1,” which is a federal guideline for “high-poverty schools.” Are you telling us that there is no middle-class and no upward mobility in Memphis, a city that takes great pride in its entrepreneurship, flagship companies, work ethic, and aspirations to become a “city of choice”?
* Wouldn't it help Memphis market itself if it emphasized its middle class, even if it cost it some federal bucks once in a while?
* Approximately 86 percent of MCS students are classified as “economically disadvantaged” and eligible for free and reduced price lunches. Have you ever audited this number? How do you do that? Is MCS trying to maximize federal dollars?
* How will the upcoming vote on reinventing county government affect MCS funding?
* How many students graduated from MCS high schools last year? Why isn't this number, which is one of the simplest indicators of student progress year over year, readily available on a school by school basis? Please spare us the complexities of the graduation rate and just provide the raw number.
* Tennessee was one of two states to win federal “Race to the Top” funds this year. The state’s share is roughly $500 million. How will the share of that coming to MCS be coordinated with the additional funding you are seeking from the city council?
* Do you have bodyguards? If so, how many and why?
* You say you believe in openness, but your media staff requires reporters to submit Freedom of Information Act requests for basic information. And your idea of an interview seems to be a Q&A on public access cable where you talk about whatever you want for however long you want to talk about it. Mayor A C Wharton, on the other hand, gives out his cellphone number. Why aren’t you open?