Tuesday, June 17, 2008

All's Well that Ends (sort of) Well for MCS

Posted By on Tue, Jun 17, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Members of the Memphis City Council and Memphis school board hugged each other Tuesday and said a schools funding "crisis" has been averted for a year, but it is not clear exactly how and by whose math.

After Monday's dire warning by Mayor Willie Herenton of a possible $450 million state funding cut for MCS, Tuesday's developments, vague as they were, promised better things.

Before the start of the regularly scheduled city council meeting, councilmen Bill Morrison and Harold Collins, joined by several school board members, came to the podium and announced, "We will work this thing out and have a positive resolution in the near future."

Collins said there would be no property tax increase for city residents. In fact, the tax rate will fall from $3.43 to $3.25. MCS will be "fully funded," Collins said, even though the council is sticking by its decision to cut the city school payment from $93 million to about $22 million this year.

Interim superintendent Dan Ward, one of scores of school system employees who came to City Hall for the council meeting, said the school system would dip into its reserves for $38 million, leaving a balance of $55 million. Additional "savings" will result from the school system officially recognizing that its enrollment has declined to 113,000 students, down from widely reported but never verified enrollment figures of 118,000 and 120,000 in the last five years or so.

The enrollment decline is significant because state funds are awarded on a per-pupil basis. School board member Jeff Warren said declining enrollment enables a city to legally cut its funding. Warren says the city council cut money from schools so members could claim to be tax cutters even though taxes for non-school public services went up. By the same token, school board members can say they fought fiercely against funding reductions even though the net result appears likely to be a funding reduction.

Both sides said their attorneys are continuing to work on the funding issue. How much posturing and face-saving are involved in dodging the "crisis" is not clear. A $450 million state funding cut, which is nearly half the operating budget, would have practically shut down the school system. A cut of $50 million, or roughly five-percent, would be in line with what other city and county divisions are undergoing.

What is known is that Memphis homeowners will get a property tax decrease on their city tax bill for at least one year. New superintendent Kriner Cash will have to deal with Herenton, who more or less stood by his low assessment of Cash as the survivor of a flawed search process. And the elected school board will remain in place despite Herenton's call for an appointed board and a referendum on that issue.

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