After an hour and a half of debate - modest by the yardstick of past council controversies - the Memphis city council voted by the surprising margin of 10-3 to cut $66 million from its annual contribution to the budget of Memphis City Schools. The successful proposal was offered by freshman councilman Bill Morrison, a teacher himself, and It carried with it what Morrison said was an 18-cent reduction in the city property-tax rate -- from $3.43 to $ 3.25 per $100 of assessed value.
The vote not only flew in the face of council tradition that education spending is sacrosanct but came after impassioned pleas to leave the school budget intact from a volley of speakers including Johnnie Turner of the NAACP and Yvonne Acey of the Memphis Education Association. Two council members, Joe Brown and Barbara Swearengen Ware, then resolved to hold the line on cuts, while another, freshman Jim Strickland, who had been one of the original proponents of steep reductions, called for a "go-slow" policy that would cut a lesser amount from the schools and more from other city programs.
But the rest of the council showed itself determined to usher in a sea change in council policy toward school spending. Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., another teacher, signaled the council's mood early in the debate when he cited a "duty to my conscience and to the citizens," who - as he and others would go on to say - were already burdened with too heavy a tax rate.
Similar notes were struck by others, including Harold Collins, who noted that other departments of city government were being cut and attempted to redirect "moral obligations" toward those "who cannot continue to pay the tax." Shea Flinn echoed Collions' assertion that "the children would not be hurt," and he, former school board member Wanda Halbert , and councilwoman Janis Fullilove focused on what was described variously as a pattern of waste in school spending, as bureaucratic "bloat," and as inattention to the need for closing certain schools.
All spoke of the need to focus concern on overburdened taxpayers. In embracing what he termed the "heresy" of decreases in education spending, 16-year council veteran Myron Lowery proclaimed it "a new day," in which "nothing is sacred."
The Morrison proposal included a provision for forgiveness by the city of $15 million in debt accruing to the school system. That, together with $20.2 million from property taxes, and $7.1 percent from unspecified other courses, would yield the schools a total of $42.3 million from the city, the councilman said.
Only county governments are required by state law to fund schools, and several of the speakers for the Morrison proposal on Tuesday suggested that county government, which already provides the brunt of expenditures for city schools, as well as for county schools, could compensate for the city's reduced share. That's in the long run; in the short run, the school system maintains a "rainy day" reserve fund estimated at $120 million.
School board member Betty Mallott said after the vote that she was disappointed in a council action that seemed "impetuous" but said she might have found acceptable a scaled-down, "transitional" policy, like that advocated by Strickland. "The council could have begun to phase in its reductions over the next year instead of doing something this abrupt," she said.