The disagreement about school funding between Memphis City Council and Memphis City Schools is a crucial policy question that deserves the kind of careful judicial review that is taking place in Chancery Court.
Even if there had been a compromise to resolve the political dispute, there would still be the need for a definitive legal determination so city legislators will know if there is any chance that they could finally rationalize and equalize the current tax structure that punishes Memphis taxpayers.
This is a seminal question that will go a long way in determining if Memphis will have a reasonable chance to remove the tax burden that has forced so many people out of the city limits in search of an immediate increase in their disposable incomes by a reduction in taxes.
Eye On The Ball
While city school board members may be worried about the operations of Memphis City Schools, the greater priority is for all of us to be worried about staunching the lifeblood of Memphians leaving for greener pastures and lower tax rates. Otherwise, we may be racing headlong into a future in which fewer and fewer Memphians pay more and more in city taxes for city schools (and this doesn’t even take into account the fact that they will continue to pay twice for schools unlike any other residents of Shelby County).
In other words, there is a lot more at stake in Chancellor Kenny Armstrong’s court than the issue of school funding on the court’s docket. More fundamentally, it is about whether Memphis will be handcuffed into a tax system that undermines the city that it purports to serve and that limits seriously our ability to become attractive to young workers who prefer to live in the urbanized core of cities.
The best thing about the beginning of the court hearing is that the attorney gamesmanship that had been depreciating the quality of the public discussion has largely been eliminated. In this regard, the $152 million countersuit filed by the attorney for City Council was sophistry and casuistry at its worst.
Losing The High Ground
Worst of all, the countersuit blew up the high ground on which Memphis City Council had based its decision and lowered this crucial public policy question into just another game of political oneupsmanship. It was a disappointing turn of events, particularly in light of the fact that most Council members were unaware of the politically-charged plans for the counterclaim.
Unfortunately, the gratuitous claim resulted in an equally gratuitous broadside – filled with terms like illegal conduct, nonsensical argument, and 11th hour novel legal theory – from the attorney for Memphis City Schools. All of a sudden, this important question had degenerated from an important public policy decision to two attorneys who appeared to be fighting for headlines and treating this like it was a private legal battle.
Memphis City Council would do well to keep the public discussion and their rhetoric focused on tax equity and its pivotal influence on the future of Memphis. Instead, its countersuit gave this all the familiar trappings of politics as usual.
Other School News
And yet, the Chancery Court lawsuit – which is destined to end up in the Tennessee Supreme Court for the definitive decision needed on the core question – is important enough to suspend our normal retail politics long enough to have a reasoned public discussion about the issues at stake.
Meanwhile, there’s other school-related news in the headlines.
On the Shelby County Schools front, Superintendent Bobby Webb received perhaps the most preposterous pay raise in the history of the public sector, jacking up his salary by $56,500 to $231,750 a year. And to undermine the beating that Memphians take in these school issues, keep in mind that about $40,000 of the raise will be paid by city taxpayers – although they have no voice in the operations of Shelby County Schools or the election of its school board members.
We’re sure it’s only a coincidence that Supt. Webb’s salary is being boosted just in time to affect his pension as he approaches what we are told is his 35th year in the state retirement system. In that system, we are told that the final pension amount is the average of the top five years’ salary, and with his raise, Mr. Webb just bumped up that average by about $11,000.
Meanwhile, the people who have the most to do with whether student academic performance really improves – county school teachers – will get 2% raises, compared to the superintendent’s 32%.
Ultimately, there was no way for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to prevent the raise that the majority abhorred, and they were left with no options but to let Shelby County Schools move ahead with the hike. We thought Commissioner Mike Ritz’s resolution setting Supt. Webb’s raise at the same level as his teachers had merit, but there wasn’t any real way to enforce it.
Not Buying It
That doesn’t mean that anyone on the board of commissioners is really buying the county district’s argument that a big raise is necessary to keep their superintendent. If that is actually the case, the district should forward to the commissioners a list of all those other districts that have been knocking on the door to lure away this invaluable leader.
In the meantime, someone should deprogram PTSA president Becca Priddy who told the commissioners that perhaps the school district could teach county government something about efficiently managing taxpayers’ money. If Ms. Priddy is really interested in that kind of efficiency, we’re looking for the PTSA to call for a consolidated district where costs could really be reduced.
And to demonstrate an abhorrent lack of knowledge about local government, she asked what county government had done with “millions of dollars” collected by the wheel tax and diverted from education. The fact that nothing like that has remotely happened did nothing to keep her from perpetuating the myth that the wheel tax was a temporary tax only for schools. It said volumes about the kind of propaganda dished out by the county schools to his adherents.
The Wheel Deal
For the record, when the Shelby County Wheel Tax was passed, the uses of the bond funds were set out specifically and publicly communicated, and while education was the primary beneficiary, some of the bond funds were used for The Med and road construction. It’s worth remembering that Shelby County Government could not have legally issued the bonds without detailing the ways that the taxes would be spent and any deviation from that spending plan would jeopardize the bonds.
Then there were media reports suggesting that $7 million in improvements to Fairview Middle School could be a boondoggle for taxpayers. That opinion could only be true if the school is bulldozed to turn over the site as part of the plans for the 168-acre Fairgrounds to be transformed into a mixed-use development that anchors this critical area of Memphis.
It also presupposes that there is enough political muscle to push Memphis City Schools into allowing the demolition of one of Memphis’ last remaining Art Deco schools. In recent years, there have been some intriguing suggested uses of Fairview Middle School, particularly by former city district chief planner Louise Mercuro, and all of them should be explored before any consideration should be given to razing the school.
In that vein, if it is decided that the better use for the southeast corner of Central and East Parkway is for the school to be turned over to commercial development, we believe that with some imagination, adaptive reuse allows the school to continue its status as a historic landmark for Memphis.
If Poag-McEwen can envision such a future for the former Church of Christ at Highland and Midland, we are confident that the Fairgrounds team can envision a use that could become a symbol for our city’s new attention to sustainability.
The demolition of Fairview Middle School should be the last choice for the future of this site, and it shouldn’t even be on the table right now as Memphis City Schools weighs its best uses for the school’s future.
Finally, the last piece of school news that interested us wasn’t the “We Got Game” détente that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and new Superintendent Kriner Cash found on the basketball court (we’d have preferred a more substantive setting), but the investment that Mr. Cash appears to be willing to make to get former Miami security chief Gerald Darling to Memphis.
Last week, we wondered how Supt. Cash would invest the coveted political capital that he has during his honeymoon period. If he’s not careful, this could be just the kind of distraction that he doesn’t need as he tries to communicate his academic priorities. It could also be the kind of controversy that eliminates the honeymoon altogether and the luster of his newfound celebrity.
You only have a honeymoon once, and his love letters to Memphis need to be about improving student performance, reforming the district’s culture and installing a school-centric administration, rather than defending the controversial record in Miami of his new security chief.