There’s the widely-held belief in corporate American that in times of great financial stress, an effective manager can cut as much as 15 percent of the budget at any time without doing serious damage to the company.

It’s hard to argue on some days that it can’t apply to the public sector as well, but over the years, while other public entities have cut budgets and scaled back some programs, the school systems have always been sacred cows.

In those days, it was hardly possible to question what the school funding was producing in the way of student performance, and any hint that budgets could be cut was met with outcries and uproars.

More Mature

There’s little question that we’ve finally turned that corner. For the first time in 30 years, tough questions about funding, accountability and student performance are being asked, and this attention to public education is not just overdue, but healthy.

It’s a rare event when most people in a city concentrate on a single issue and engage in a debate about the pros and cons of a top funding priority. As a result, the current wide-ranging discussion about our schools seems to us to be a positive step in the maturity of Memphis.

Hopefully, political games will be held to a minimum and facts and information will be maximized. On the surface, the $42 million cut announced by Memphis City Schools feels more like the former.

Keeping Perspective

We hope we’re wrong, but the district cuts seem as intended to stir up emotions as to achieve the necessary budgetary reductions in a thoughtful and serious way. It just seems strange that the cuts in the number of counselors, mental health professionals (social workers and psychologists) and English as second language mentors as well as textbooks (which we heard weren’t ordered in a timely way anyway) push some buttons that are intended to fire up opposition to the Memphis City Council’s $66 million cut in funding for Memphis City Schools.

To put the $42 million of announced cuts by Memphis City Schools in perspective, it’s worth remembering that it amounts to about a 4% of the district budget (not counting capital funding). Perhaps, respected former FedEx executive Karl Birkholz, who was booted out unceremoniously only two days after being hired to straighten out the controversy-plagued Central Nutrition Center, could have handled this for the district. In the private sector world from which he came, paring 4% from a budget is often considered low-hanging fruit.

Put another way, Memphis City Schools spends almost $114,000 an hour, 24/7/365. The cuts amount to $4,800. With average daily spending of about $2.7 million, the cuts require a reduction of about $115,000.

Swatting Mosquitoes

Perhaps, the reality of the size of the district’s massive budget was the reason that new superintendent Kriner Cash was for making the cuts before he was against it. As a result, in addition to announcing cuts, Memphis City Schools needs to make a case that convinces us that the district is not merely substituting highly visible and volatile budget targets for the more pragmatic ones that could easily be made in a bureaucracy of this size.

We confess to being too suspicious about these cuts. That’s because we’ve all seen for too many years the “political” budget cuts made by government agencies whose real purpose is not so much to reduce expenditures but to preserve their money. The real purpose is to trigger people into to complaining loudly to their elected officials, namely City Council members.

It’s what was called the “mosquito spraying” strategy in the halls of local government. Every time, local legislative bodies cut the budget of the health department, officials there in turn announced that the cuts would require the end of mosquito spraying and rat control programs in Memphis neighborhoods.

Hope Springs Eternal

At the same time, the administrative bureaucracy was untouched by any cuts in the budget, but the health department won more than it lost from these political exercises.

We hope these cuts are not the educational equivalent of “mosquito spraying.” That’s why we also hope that Memphis City Schools will give taxpayers more information about how they arrived at these specific cuts.

As part of this, it would be useful to show the alternate scenarios for budget cuts to the taxpayers who pay the bills for public education. We also hope that the district will reach out to get advice from other people – including business leaders and researchers – as it weighs these kinds of decisions