There is no sacred cow in the public sector that compares to public education – or can moo as loudly.

We’ve been hearing the familiar refrain since June when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners put $11 million in new tax revenues into a rainy day fund for school construction rather than send it to the districts for their operating budgets.

There’s one thing we can always count on when it comes to schools. It doesn’t matter how much money they get; they always want more.

Flat Enrollment, Growing Budgets

And it comes in spite of flat and declining student population in the districts. In Memphis City Schools, enrollment has dropped from 119,021 students in the 2004-05 school year to a projected 114,456 for the coming school year. Meanwhile, the district’s expenditures – excluding the bond payments for school construction made by city and county governments – has climbed from $764 million in 2004-2005 to $910 million in the proposed budget for the coming year.

Parenthentically, it’s interesting to note that in Willie W. Herenton’s last year as superintendent, enrollment was about 9,000 students less than today and the district’s budget was less than half of what it is today.

As for Shelby County Schools, its expenditures have increased from $270.6 million in 2005-06 to $324.5 million in 2007-2008.

More Of The Same

They hardly sound like school systems that are going belly up if they don’t get the $11 million in dispute. Already, the courts have held that the board of commissioners was acting within its rights when it used the money to pay capital expenses.

However, the districts act like their entire operations hang in the balance, which is a pretty remarkable overreaction considering that $11 million represents roughly 8/10ths of 1 percent of what the two districts spend each year. Because of it, you’d think that just once the districts could set aside its special interest attitude and help with the financial pressures facing the city and county governments that fund them.

Here’s our prediction for the upcoming budget hearings: while all other public services are cutting budgets and laying off employees, the districts will act like their budgets are sacred, calling for more money in the face of the grim financial realities. Of course, the beauty for the city and county school boards is that even when they are successful in getting more money, it’s the City Council and County Board of Commissioners who get the blame for the tax increases.

Worth The Investment?

The broader question to be asked about every public service in budget hearings this year is this: If the service was a business, would its performance justify more investment? That’s an especially tough one for public education, and curiously, it’s one that’s rarely asked and answered during budget hearings.

For example, there’s never a time when each of the school districts lays out a cohesive plan to increase the academic performance of their students and what measurable impact will result from its approach and its new programs. Instead, the districts normally just tell how much they need and make the same old arguments about how much they need more money for schools, but without offering any seriously encouraging signs that more money is producing better results.

The $11 million got back into the news this week when the Memphis and Shelby County Needs Assessment Committee recommended that county government give the money to the schools for their operating budgets. The Needs Assessment Committee was created in 2003 at the urging of Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton to evaluate capital requests in order to control the county’s spiraling debt for schools.


While the Needs Assessment Committee has largely been ineffectual or irrelevant, it’s hard to understand its logic for wading into this issue, since the $11 million was being used to respond the exact kind of capital challenge that the committee was created to help solve.

Its recommendation in this matter in essence reinforced the school districts’ consistent message: it’s all about us – the county’s financial problems are the county’s problem.

One fact of life uppermost in the minds of city and county legislators is that whatever amount they fund the district, they are wed to it. Because of state law, it can never be reduced, regardless of whatever budgetary challenges or demographic changes facing city and county government. In other words, local government can never fund public education at a lower amount than last year.

New Way

The worst thing about the budget processes of city and county governments are that they have changed little in the past 20 years although many local governments have installed new measurements, new accountability, new transparency and new data-driven budgeting. As a result, there’s little sense here of the results that flow from public funding, and no area is more opaque than education.

With budgets larger than the two local governments that fund it, the school districts could set out to show all of us how budgets should be developed, measured and assessed. Now that would be an education all of the public sector could use.