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SCHOOL BUDGET UPDATE: Pre-K dominates budget talks

Shelby County school board members propose the district’s first unified budget during a public information session Tuesday night.

Shelby County school board members propose the district’s first unified budget during a public information session Tuesday night.

With a Red Bull energy drink by the superintendent’s side and school officials dropping the word “draconian” in reference to cuts, the unified school board began a difficult week of budget talks before a packed house.

Tuesday night was the only opportunity this week for the public to make comments about the $1.18 billion budget for the former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. Many waited more than 2 1/2 hours for that opportunity.

But before they got a chance to talk, interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson Jr., school administrators and board members spend hours discussing a dizzying analysis of dollars and cents for a massive general fund budget that is not balanced. As of Wednesday, the budget still had a deficit of more than $35 million.

That’s after what Hopson said was a difficult process for a district and staff that’s in its first year.

“These cuts are going to hurt,” said Hopson at the start of the meeting.

By the meeting’s end, Hopson said that pain hadn’t gone away.

“We’re going to keep looking hard,” he said. “We’ve heard what the board is most interested in, and we’ll see what changes we can make.”

The district is counting on support from Shelby County commissioners to help bridge the gap even with the cuts. Because the district cannot raise taxes itself, it needs the county commissioners to do that for them.

Still, citizens expressed concerns about where the district plans to spend that money, particularly when it comes to prekindergarten classes.

Carrying homemade signs and periodically applauding commissioners’ comments, most of those who spoke Tuesday voiced their frustrations with proposed cuts to pre-K classes throughout the district.

“We actually wanted you to see how many lives would be affected,” said Kenya Bradshaw, executive director of Tennessee Stand for Children, and one of the community members who spoke to the board during its public comment session. Bradshaw was holding up a sign with 1,642 figures representing the number of pre-K children who would lose the early intervention class as a result of the cuts.

Despite Hopson’s assurance that the district had found a way to save 29 more pre-K classrooms, several of the commissioners also spoke about their concerns with cuts.

“I oppose the use of Title I funds outside the classroom,” said board member Tomeka Hart, who said that federal funding should be used to fund the pre-K classes instead of being diverted toward other needs. “I will not support this budget.”

Kenneth Whalum Jr., who also said outside the meeting that he will vote against the budget when board members meet Thursday, said he supports pre-K programs, too. However, he’s concerned that applying more money to those resources will take away from the district’s statutory requirement to provide education to those students in Kindergarten through the 12th grade.

“Let the Gates Foundation provide for pre-K,” said Whalum during the meeting, referring to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation formed by Microsoft’s founder and his wife that helps fund education initiatives worldwide.

Other board members asked questions about proposed cuts to librarians, school counselors, world language instructors and drivers education teachers among the 117 positions that would be eliminated as a result of a $75 million slimmer unified budget than the 2012-2013 combined budgets of MCS and SCS.

But board member David Reaves wanted to assure some parents that athletic and arts programs are not among those massive cuts.

“Some of the information is not accurate in the community,” said Reaves who also said he had been receiving feedback.

In fact, eliminating those programs and stipends for athletic coaches would save less than 1 percent of the overall budget with significant costs to those who help run those programs.

“Essentially, you’d be asking them to coach for free,” Reaves said.

Outside the meeting, Reaves said he doesn’t believe the cuts amount to the level of draconian yet. But they could be, he said, if the county commissioners don’t come up with additional help this year.

“It’s not that (Shelby County) doesn’t have the money, it’s how we spend it,” Reaves said. “Putting money toward the schools, maybe that means we spend less on police officers.”

School board chairman Billy Orgel also said outside the meeting that he agrees with the budget and hopes the county commissioners see its merits, too.
“We’re at the whim of the elected government,” said Orgel, in reference to the school board’s inability to raise taxes yet have to make cuts in staffing and other programs. “I would challenge the community to decide to fund education at a higher level.”

But county commissioners might not have the votes to get the district to exactly where it needs to be. Several county commissioners have said they will vote in favor of raising taxes in a year when the tax rate also likely will increase as a result of decreased property assessment values. However, several also have said they will vote against raising taxes, which means that board might not have a two-thirds majority required to give the district more than 9.9 percent in additional funding that it can give with a simple majority.

That’s an issue that doesn’t sit well with some school board members.

“We are still to the point right now where eight county commissioners have said they are willing to raise taxes,” said school board member Martavius Jones. “If (the others) aren’t willing to fully invest in education, we, as Shelby Countians, should send them home.”

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