Memphis City Schools will run out of money sometime this November if the City Council does not restore to MCS the funding cuts of last week. The state board of education's threatened cut of some $423 million in funding, coupled with the council's reduction of almost $70 million, adds up to almost $500 million in cuts — roughly 50 percent of the school system's annual budget.
Besides robbing our children, the council has perpetrated a clever ruse. Disingenuously, MCS has been scapegoated as chief cause of the financial stress. The portion of the tax rate given to the schools annually was indeed reduced by this year's budget cuts. But then citizens were charged an additional 45 cent tax per $100 in the area of "city services." The result? A 17 percent tax increase for city operations and debt service — about 1 percent of which was generated by MCS.
Meanwhile, the schools will experience a 50 percent cut in operating income. Teachers' insurance and retirement benefits will be jeopardized. Classroom learning will be drastically affected by layoffs and reductions in every segment of the system — affecting all non-tenured teachers as well as sports, music, arts, optional funding, and basic services.
State government's threat to withhold funding to MCS is based on what it sees as a local failure in the statutory requirement for "maintenance of effort." In English, that means that annual school funding must be maintained at no less than the pre-existing level.
The relevant statute designates local funding bodies, not, as the council majority seems to believe, county governments only. The city has funded MCS since 1937, and that precedent would seem to establish Memphis city government as a local funding body.
Moreover, city noncompliance with "maintenance of effort" would not bring about an immediate consolidation of city and county schools — despite city attorney Allan Wade's opinion to the contrary. The state board of education has said that Shelby County is not required to enroll students from another district. And, even if the Shelby County school system wanted to enroll MCS students, it does not have the physical capacity to do so.
We at MCS are constantly maligned by anyone who wants an easy target to gain a quick political point. Much has been said about "inefficiencies" in the school system, but we did not ask for any tax increase this year. The council did: 45 cents extra for the rest of city government. What services have improved in city government lately?
Meanwhile, MCS has taken the graduation rate from 48 percent to 69 percent over the last five years. In that regard, we have the 14th highest rate among the 50 largest school districts — better than Charlotte and Boston and New York. MCS students have improved on state tests at a 3 percent rate compared to the state average of 2 percent. We have achieved these results despite the financial burden of having to provide the highest number of free lunches to impoverished children of any district in the state.
We do not rest on our laurels. We on the school board constantly look for improved ways of managing the business of the district. It is no chance occurrence that our recent choice for a new superintendent was head of accountability for the Miami Dade schools systems. Our runner-up was the chief operating officer of a school system of 174,000 students. We were obviously seeking a strong manager experienced in the operations of a large school system.
We are the third-largest employer in the state and the second-largest employer in the city, but now, in the midst of a significant recession, our City Council decides to have this engine of the local economy decimated by a tax increase disguised as a budget cut, at the expense of student education.
In all fairness, the question of future city funding for the schools should be on the agenda for public discussion. But to proceed without careful long-range planning is something no self-respecting business owner would ever consider doing.
The council should admit to an error in timing and execution and restore the ill-conceived school-funding cuts. At that point we can form a commission on school funding that would include members of the business community, along with representatives from education and government at both state and local levels.
From such a commission might come a truly viable plan — not a haphazard one like the City Council's, which risks so much at this critically fragile time.
Jeff Warren is a member of the Memphis school board.