Friday, February 12, 2010

MCS: Experience Needed?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2010 at 1:27 PM

Traditionally, a school board is a body of political novices and a training ground for those with further political aspirations.

If someone wants to be the sheriff, for instance, or an elected judge, they generally need to meet certain criteria, say, a background in law enforcement or a law degree.

To be on the school board, however, the only criteria you have to meet is be able to say "The children are our future" or some similar refrain convincingly. It helps if you're a parent with a child in the system, but it's not necessary. And you generally don't have to worry about running against the A C Wharton's of the world.

But in the current funding crisis, it would help if MCS board members had more political experience.

A few weeks ago, the MCS school board voted to ask the city of Memphis to fully fund $50 million the city had promised them. The move, in effect, rejected a City Council approved plan to take $28 million from the city reserves, make $10 million in city budget cuts, and then forgive $12 million that the district owes the city.

What a waste of a discussion. Why even vote for a resolution asking for all $50 million? We get it, the school system budgeted for that $50 million and it wants it in cash, but just reiterating your position over and over doesn't help find a solution.

It seems like it would be so much better for the district — and its children — to give the City Council a clear idea of what the board would accept as a plan and what compromises it could live with.

MCS board chair Martavius Jones proposed accepting the "Conrad plan" for the current year, in which the city would take $35 million from its reserves and then make $15 million in budget cuts. That plan hadn't passed in the City Council, but under it, the school system would get the entire $50 million.

But other board members balked at the idea, saying it wasn't in their purview to tell the council how to do its job, and that it wasn't right to single out a particular council member.

For his part, MCS superintendent Kriner Cash seemed to want the district to approve some sort of compromise. The district's attorney even suggested approving the City Council 28/10/12 plan and then litigating the $12 million in debt forgiveness.

"I just want to make sure we're not left at 0," superintendent Kriner Cash told board members. "The uncertainly is the most damaging. We can negotiate $10 million here and there."

Ultimately, the City Council is looking for $50 million for the schools for the current fiscal year, $57 million from last year that a state appellate court ruled the city has to give the district, as well as at least $50 million for the upcoming fiscal year that starts in July.

The council can't take much more than $30 million from the reserves without being in danger of the city's bond rating being lowered. The council doesn't seem all that interested in raising taxes, and citizens never are. And what's left to cut?

I get the school board's position that recent tax cuts have come from education. I get that the council said one thing — that it would give the schools $50 million — and now it's offering them $40. But I'm reminded of the saying a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Especially as the school district nears the end of the year, a time when it has traditionally depended on the city funding to carry it through the summer.

The Council this week postponed a vote on school funding, trying to find a solution that incorporates funding for both the city schools and the Regional Medical Center. But the plan they were to take up was the "Strickland" plan, taking $30 million from the city reserves, cutting $10 million in city government, and forgiving $10 million in school debt.

There is also a meeting today of a special school funding group.

But if the Strickland plan, which is only slightly different than what the city school board rejected, had been taken up and passed, what will the school board have done?

Pass another resolution asking for the entire $50 million?

One thing is sure: It'll be an experience.

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