The Shelby County unified school district’s budget is now in the hands of county commissioners.
Seventeen of the 23 board members voted Tuesday afternoon in favor of a $1.18 billion general fund budget that still has a more than $30 million gap between funding and expenditures.
“It’s half-time,” said interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson after the meeting. “We’ll be meeting with as many (county) commissioners as we can get, but I’m confident we’re at the end of what we can do here.”
The county commissioners’ budget committee will meet at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 22, to discuss Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposed budget as well as the district’s accepted budget.
But before the members overwhelmingly passed a slimmer budget than what the former Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools had combined last year, a few board members called on county commissioners to help them bridge that gap.
“I’m going to support the budget the way that it is, and then go fight for it with county commissioners,” said board member David Reaves from the legacy SCS who said after the meeting that he is much more concerned about how the district handled cuts to the school plant managers than he was just a few days ago. “I think it absolutely sucks what we’ve done to these schools. We’ve bludgeoned the legacy Shelby County Schools.”
Martavius Jones, an MCS board member, agreed.
“David Reaves, when you go to the county commissioners, I’m right behind you, my friend,” he said.
The county and school officials already have been talking about what will happen when the county decides on how much of that money it will give the district for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Because the school district cannot leverage taxes, it depends on the county to create a budget that will help it make ends meet.
As it stands, the county will have to raise its tax rate just to generate the same amount of money it took in from taxpayers during 2012-2013. The reason is that property assessments dropped during the county’s four-year revaluation cycle when it set those values in January. While the county irons out its own budget, it might also have to raise taxes above the rate increase to fund the schools.
But not all commissioners are on board. While school officials said they believe at least eight of the county commissioners will vote in favor of funding the district’s gap, the district might need at least nine favorable votes to get a two-thirds majority necessary to raise the rate more than 9.9 percent.
Jones said he believes county commissioners Heidi Shafer and Steve Baser. both from Memphis city districts, might give the district the votes it needs for that supermajority.
“I can’t leverage the votes by myself, but I would call on the community to talk to the commissioners in what’s an election year for them,” said Jones outside the meeting.
Despite the $75 million reduction in spending compared to the former school districts’ previous budgets and the addition of 40 more prekindergarten classes than what Hopson first proposed, not all board members were happy. Kenneth Whalum, Betty Mallot and Sara Lewis voted against the motion made prior to an additional two hours of board discussion about the budget. Ernest Chism, Diane George and Jeffery Warren were absent.
Whalum had said previously that he could not support the budget in principle because he did not agree with the merger of the MCS and SCS systems. A motion he made several weeks ago to postpone the merger for a year in the wake of recent state legislation that is expected to lead to the creation of six new municipal school districts in Shelby County did not pass.
Meanwhile, the district did change at least some of the capital improvements budget in the likelihood that the new school systems will come to fruition. About $55 million originally planned to be used for renovations at Germantown and Millington high schools, as well as building a new school in an unincorporated part of southeastern Shelby County, was listed as unassigned when the budget passed. That money cannot be transferred to the general fund because it is attached to public bonds.