A decision by Memphis City Council to cut city schools funding will create chaos.
A decision to cut school funding will throw city and county budget hearings into turmoil.
A decision to cut school funding will create havoc in the budget of Memphis City Schools.
A decision to cut school funding will explode into political name-calling and recriminations.
And yet, Memphis City Council should do it.
We know it’s not the optimal way to create public policy, but it’s clear that doing the same thing and expecting different results is not only the definition of insanity, but the definition of political myopia at City Hall.
After all, we’ve been talking for 25 years about placing all school funding where it belongs – on Shelby County’s larger tax base. We’ve been talking for way too long about making the Memphis tax burden more rational, and despite all the talk, nothing has changed.
Meanwhile, the city tax rate has moved up and the middle class has moved out.
If one thing is clearer than the unfair Memphis tax burden, it is that the inequity will continue to rock along until somebody like the Memphis City Council tosses a grenade into the system. Otherwise, nothing will change, leaving Memphians with strong financial incentives to leave the city for the suburbs.
We’ve written before about the obvious logic of single source funding for Memphis and Shelby County Schools and the obvious need to eliminate Memphians paying twice for public schools while every one outside of the Memphis city limits pays once.
When Memphis began to fund schools six decades ago, it was likely because the rural-dominated county government paid scant attention to anything inside Memphis and took a rural view of schools. It was equally likely that Memphians wanted more from their schools than the small county district did and the needs of the county district drove funding decisions.
But times have clearly changed. County government bears no resemblance to 30 years ago, much less 60 years, and today, the lion’s share of its budget is spent for services within the city limits of Memphis.
It would be better if we had a closely coordinated school funding plan between Memphis City Schools, Memphis city government and Shelby County Government, but there’s nothing like a crisis to get everyone focused – and truth be told, we haven’t focused at all yet on the need to equalize and rationalize the Memphis tax rate.
If experience has taught us anything as Memphis’ middle class hollowed out, it is this – taxes matter, but what matters most is whether there is a lack of public confidence that the high level of taxation is producing high level public services. People have been voting with their feet on this issue for more than a decade.
A Decade Late
There is of course the serious question about whether county government will replace the city’s cut in funds to Memphis City Schools, and if it did replace the funding completing, it would result in a county tax increase of about 90 cents. Of course, the city tax rate would be cut by about the same amount.
In other words, changes in school funding aren’t going to create a windfall for Memphis taxpayers, but it could in fact spread school funding across the county’s larger tax base, and miracle of miracles, it might even encourage a little more open-mindedness among the town mayors on the issue of consolidation.
It would have been better if this had been done back when the city’s funding for schools was $60 million, back in the days when Memphis businessman Russell Gwatney was sounding the alarm of the unsustainable school funding structure. It’s hard to believe that it was about 10 years ago that he first rolled out his plan for single source funding, but now, it seems inarguable that he was right.
Political Trump Card
The problem back then was that his proposal kept being assigned to special task forces created more by county government as a way to defuse the political pressure building for change than in developing new, fairer ways of funding city and county schools. Time after time, single source funding fell victim to the lack of political leadership to get it done and to the no-tax pledges taken by a majority of county officials.
It hardly mattered that it is Shelby County Government’s – not Memphis’ – legal responsibility to fund public education, and each time, the committees issued recommendations that went nowhere, called for more study or ended up at loggerheads because of partisan political interests.
With a Democratic mayor and legislative majority in county government, the pro-suburb attitude that has characterized Shelby County Government for a century should finally be diminishing, and if so, perhaps single source funding is an idea whose time has come.
Back then, Mr. Gwatney pointed out correctly that tax revenues could not keep pace with the rapid expansion of operating and capital expenditures for schools. From 1994 to 2000, he said, the combined spending for both school systems increased $555.5 million, an increase for city schools of 75 percent and 61 percent for county schools.
He also honed in on ADA (Average Daily Attendance) requirements that called for county government to send a proportional amount to the city district every time a new county school was built, meaning that a $30 million county school resulted in about $70 million going to city schools.
To address these problems, Mr. Gwatney laid out the following recommendations:
* Establish county government as the single source of funding for operations and maintenance of city and county schools districts
* Establish a city-county school construction authority to oversee all capital construction projects for both districts
* Establish two capital improvement districts for city and county schools, and each district would be responsible for any debt issued on its behalf.
* City and county school boundaries would be frozen for 13 years (one educational cycle)
* Establish strong systemwide accountability and performance standards
* Support passage of half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to the capital improvement of schools
* Eliminate the ADA requirements for school construction
Perhaps, if we’re lucky, City Council’s determination to change things could spark a re-look at the recommendations in hopes of making the kind of fundamental shift in public policy that represents serious progress in tax equity and school funding.