Cheaper, Better, Smarter? 

With city and state funding in limbo, Memphis City Schools bet on Chancery Court.

I get what the Memphis City Council is trying to do.

In fact, when they cut $66 million in funding to Memphis City Schools in June — effectively giving Memphis residents an 18-cent tax cut — I was all for it.

Please, hold your fire.

As council members explained to new superintendent Kriner Cash during a committee meeting, they wanted to reduce the Memphis tax rate to bring it more on par with that of county residents and force the district administration to become more efficient.

"I don't want you to get the wrong idea that this council is not for education," said council member Shea Flinn. "There have been issues in our school system that we need to resolve, and that's what we've been attempting to do."

But, like the mayor, the City Council has no authority over the city schools, save approving and historically funding part of the district's almost-billion-dollar operating budget, no matter how many contracts are signed by deceased attorneys or what waste happens at the Central Nutrition Center.

For Cash's part, he told council members his mantra for the district is "cheaper, better, faster, smarter," and in many ways, it's going to have to be.

"The problem is, as I understand it, that there is a cascading piece to this," he said.

As a result of the city's actions, the state has said it will withhold more than $400 million of funding from the district. Cash said the district could weather the city funding cut but would have to close its doors if it lost state funding.

Which has led both sides to Chancery Court this week to determine if the city legally must fund the district. The crux of the case is "maintenance of effort," a clause that prohibits local funding bodies from decreasing school funding unless there is a drop in enrollment.

The city has argued that, though it has funded the city schools in some portion since 1937, they have never been legally required to do so. The county is the local funding body.

"The city of Germantown does not contribute money to fund county schools or city schools," said council attorney Allan Wade. "If they decided they wanted to assist a theater program and put $5 million to that one year, would they be obligated to continue that funding every year under the maintenance budget?"

In some ways, this situation reminds me of a high-stakes poker game. Everyone is trying to read the tells: Who's bluffing? Does anyone have pocket aces?

The state has played this game before. In the late '90s, Kingsport did not meet its maintenance of effort requirement and the state withheld funding for eight months.

But Memphis seems willing to call the state's bluff, perhaps partly because of previous rounds of Texas Hold 'Em with the city school board.

Testifying in Chancery Court last week, former teacher and council veteran Myron Lowery said the council could not get answers from district leadership during the budget process.

"We asked questions about what they spent on salaries and positions at the board, and those answers were never received," he said. "We asked what a 3 percent, 5 percent, and a 10 percent cut would look like across all divisions. The board never provided those figures.

"For 16 years, I've said yes to the Board of Education's budget ... simply because I believed and trusted the MCS administration. It was time for a change."

Lowery also pointed out that the current funding structure would never compel any school district to reduce spending. "We also want an efficient school system," he said, "one that uses money wisely."

And, in an exchange that got somewhat heated, Lowery said he believed that the state would not let the school system close its doors.

I have to agree. I don't know what would happen to the MCS administration, but by law, the state has to make sure the district's students are educated.

In a deposition of state education commissioner Tim Webb presented to the court last week, Webb was asked what would happen should MCS not have the funding to continue classes.

"We will begin to put together a task force," Webb said, "to put together an emergency response plan so students are not left without a free and appropriate education."

So I understand what the council is trying to do.

Closing arguments won't be heard until August, but no matter who "wins," I'm not sure the situation is going to achieve what the council intended. It seems to me that this will become just another reason for parents to move out of the city (if they can). And as much as I appreciate the 18 cents, that will have an impact on the tax base and, eventually, the tax rate.

Of course, if enough students leave the district, the city might just meet the maintenance of effort requirement anyway. But I'm not sure that's playing our cards right.

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