The School-Funding Conundrum 

The School-Funding Conundrum

The long-festering school-funding issue is coming to a boil. Memphis mayor (and former schools superintendent) Willie Herenton first turned up the heat in a New Year's address in which he berated parties ranging from suburban authorities at large to the Memphis school board in particular. Since then, a compromise proposal suggested by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton (also subjected to criticism, albeit of a milder variety, from Herenton) has moved to the front burner. And suddenly a variety of proposals, some of them radical, are steaming to the fore.

Approved by the Shelby County Commission Monday, but still awaiting action by the city school board, is the Wharton plan, which, in return for various trade-offs, asks the city school system to waive its normal share of school construction money under a state-ordained Average Daily Attendance (ADA) to permit the immediate construction of a new high school in Arlington and to make other improvements in the county system. The plan is, in part, meant as an answer to the vexing ADA question, which requires that three dollars be routed to the city system for every one designed for county school construction.

That plan, however, was denounced by several commission members whose constituencies lie within the city -- a prefigurement of likely rejection by the city school board.

A second idea, put forth as a likely fallback by Wharton and by county authorities, is that of issuing rural school bonds to pay for county school construction. Commissioner Julian Bolton, an opponent of the Wharton plan as one which guarantees perpetuation of a "segregated ... separate and unequal" educational system, indicated the bond proposal might be relatively tolerable to his constituents, though county school board president David Pickler noted there would be no compensations for the city under such a plan.

A third proposal -- that private developers build and lease schools to the county -- has also been mentioned by Wharton as a possibility. This idea was first put forward three years ago by developer Waymon "Jackie" Welch, who has sold the county system 10 school sites in the last 20 years. Armed with a long-term lease backed by the school board, the developer could borrow the money from a bank or insurance company. Investors would get interest from the lease payment, and the school board would be out of the real estate business.

A fourth proposal -- the most radical of all -- was suggested Monday by Bolton and fellow commissioner John Willingham, a conservative Republican who represents the other end of the spectrum from Democrat Bolton. With isolated murmurs of approval from other commissioners, Bolton and Willingham made the case for de facto school consolidation, to be accomplished by the voluntary surrender of the city school board's state charter.

Incendiary as this idea may have sounded, it was actually a recap of a long-gone Herenton proposal to accomplish general city/county consolidation by a similar abrogation of the city's charter.

The mayor, of course, has his own plan to solve the question of crippled funding for the two school systems. Though fairly complicated in its particulars, it would in essence grant autonomy to the county schools while phasing out city taxes for education and providing a single-source funding apparatus for city and county schools.

The problem with the mayors' separate plans is that they require more cogitation and good faith than may be available just now. Something must be done, however, and done quickly. Otherwise, the Bolton-Willingham proposal will doubtless come to look more and more attractive.

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