Last Come, Least Served

It is one of the immemorial customs of local government that, at the end of each fiscal year, the last governmental entities to be served are the schools. This is especially true at the Shelby County Commission, where, at budget-crunch time, superintendents for both the city and the county school systems are usually the final major appellants for increased funding.

So it was this year, when Dr. Carol Johnson, city schools superintendent, and Dr. Bobby Webb, county schools superintendent, offered a joint presentation to the commission. Though the particulars of their needs varied, each made the case that unfunded federal and state mandates -- from No Child Left Behind requirements, from Tennessee's Basic Education Program, and from an assortment of judicial decrees -- meant that the commission's decision to hold the budget line for the two systems was, in effect, a budget cut.

Besides superintendents Johnson and Webb, a variety of other petitioners tried to get the commission to relent. But neither they nor 93-year-old local crafts artist Mahaffey White, who included a spirited case for the schools in her remarks accepting a special birthday tribute, could make a dent in the commission's resolve. The metaphor of county school board president David Pickler, that the bill for No Child Left Behind was coming due and that the bill was "expensive," was matched by one from Commissioner Tom Moss, who likened the financial strictures faced by county government to a "freight train" and said the coming of that train had been unmistakably signaled last year. Worse, said Moss, it will come again next year. Meaning: even further belt-tightening is in prospect.

As always, there were haves and have-nots in the handing out of this year's table scraps. Just as was the case in statewide budgeting each of the last two years, most agencies and departments had to accept significant cuts. But some were, in both the Orwellian and in the actual sense, more equal than others. Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who lobbied early on and long thereafter to restrain the cuts faced by his department, was able, just in the last couple of weeks, to convince the commission to put $14 million back into his budget. Though Luttrell's painstaking presentations drew a commendation from commission budget chairman Cleo Kirk on Monday -- for helping to clarify the fiscal predicament faced by his and every other division of county government -- they may have, paradoxically, come at the expense of the schools' needs.

As one representative of the county system pointed out privately on Monday, it is the custom for commissioners to hold off settling the school funding issue until last in the budget process. The reason? If there has to be a tax increase, the commissioners can more easily placate their constituents if their vote for additional taxation is clearly predicated on educational needs.

But this year's budget process indicates that safety issues may have overtaken educational ones in the minds of commissioners' constituents. Never mind the arithmetic pointed out by Commissioner Michael Hooks, one of three diehard supporters of additional school funding (along with commissioners Kirk and Walter Bailey). Hooks noted that per-pupil spending in each of the relatively impoverished adjoining rural counties was higher than that of Shelby County's. That fact was taken by other commissioners merely as proof of the urgency of the safety factor, which was driving the out-migration of families with school-age children.

Whatever the reason, the lesson of this year's budget process was that education has, whether temporarily or not, been relegated to the back of the room.

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