As if state lawmakers need any more reasons to get Tennessee's fiscal house in order, this week the Memphis City Schools Board of Education approved a $743 million operating budget for 2002-2003.
Some of those costs are to fulfill requirements placed on Memphis by the state, such as smaller classroom size. The school board is downstream from the General Assembly, just as the city council and county commission are downstream from both. The local legislative bodies ultimately have to fully fund or cut the board's budget request.
At the school board meeting, Commissioner Lora Jobe pleaded with the media to bring attention to the funding dilemma. Acknowledging that MCS has brought some of its problems on itself, Jobe said state mandates on top of federal mandates are "going to eat us alive."
When federal rules on special education, for example, were imposed some 25 years ago, the federal government picked up 40 percent of the cost. Now the figure is 14 percent.
In terms of state funding of K-12 per-pupil expenditures, Tennessee ranks 49th in the country.
"We're constantly putting fingers in the dam," says Jobe, "but it really is a desperate situation."
It didn't help that MCS turned some homework in late and got fined roughly $1.5 million by the state last week. Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson accepted one resignation and handed out three suspensions to top aides and is meeting with the state commissioner of education to try to get the fine reduced.
The major damage was probably the bad publicity, and that was lessened somewhat by Watson's no-excuses response and his willingness to take responsibility. The school board followed suit this week. Members' questions of Watson were pointed but respectful. It was a good performance by a board that has fallen into bickering and worse in recent years.
The board passed the budget in short order. A motion to consider a $767 million budget failed for lack of a second. The $743 million budget may not make it through the city council and county commission. It includes $11 million in new spending or, as board member Hubon Sandridge candidly characterized it, "wish list" programs. Members also declined to second a motion by Commissioner Wanda Halbert to do what would have amounted to a line-item review of certain items in the budget.
Some school board members are wondering whether state lawmakers are biding time until after April 4th, which is the filing deadline for candidates for the General Assembly. The thinking seems to be that the absence or presence of opposition might influence some votes on tax reform.
Sandridge asked board attorney Percy Harvey if he saw any prospects of a sales-tax increase or anything else coming out of Nashville. Harvey said he had talked to most of the legislative leaders and concluded that "nobody knows what is going to happen."
The one thing the legislature has to do is balance the budget. Memphis has to watch and wait to see how that happens, but the fate isn't completely out of the hands of local leadership by any means. A task force of city and county officials and business leaders is meeting privately this week to try to find a new way to fund capital spending and classroom instruction.
If the local stalemate isn't broken, it will be hard to point the finger of blame at the state legislature. In this case, politics truly is local.