Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter’s six-week school funding conversation has reached consensus, and it’s pretty hard to argue with most of the conclusions.

After a process that included meetings, online questions, letters and phone calls, the consensus was:

• Our community needs a single source of funding for schools – Shelby County Government.

• State of Tennessee is not pulling its load and should step up its support for our schools.

• Equitable funding starts with a base amount that goes for the education of every child, but adjustments should be made for the special needs of students.

• Special needs are more than physical and learning problems and should include economic need.

• Greater accountability is needed in the present funding system, making a clearer connection between funders and how funds are spent.

Taxing Situation

Unfortunately, there was little option but to reach consensus that property taxes, sales taxes and wheel taxes are the most appropriate sources for school funding. After all, there’s no real choice since the Tennessee Legislature has repeatedly hamstrung county government’s alternatives for less regressive sources of money. There was much discussion in the “Carpenter Conversation” about tax reform, but no consensus was reached.

In addition, apparently in reaction to the continued myth that the wheel tax was supposed to go entirely to education, there was agreement that “all pledged taxes and fees should go to schools.” As we’ve pointed out previously, when the wheel tax was passed, the uses were clearly and publicly set out – schools, roads and The Med – and because wheel taxes were being used to pay bonds, it was also no mystery that it would remain in place for years. And yet, so pervasive is the mythology about the wheel tax that even some current elected officials now believe it.

The focus on accountability in the process orchestrated by Commissioner Carpenter was encouraging. There was consensus that the local governments funding schools deserve to have more input about the use of the money. As we wrote a few days ago, this new insistence by City Council and County Board of Commissioners on answers to their questions about schools is a positive development and long overdue.

For decades, county officials were told by their attorneys that they could do nothing about the school districts’ academic or funding priorities. Their only role, their legal advisors said, was to approve the school budgets or not. Those days are thankfully past and based on the process overseen by Commissioner Carpenter, the public seems to support more engaged funders.

ADA (Average Daily Answer)

One area of consensus that we didn’t share was that the current ADA (Average Daily Attendance) formula is not the best approach for funding capital expenses of the school systems. Again, mythology outstrips reality when it comes to discussing the ADA law.

Yes, the ADA requirement contributed to Shelby County Government’s climbing bond debt, but the political answer over the years has been to uncouple city schools so they did not receive capital funding every time county schools did. The law simply put into place a legal requirement for equity, requiring that Memphis City Schools gets roughly $3 every time Shelby County Schools gets $1. That funding split was based on the proportion of the total students in each of the districts.

There’s no question that if the ADA requirement was not in place, Shelby County Government’s debt would never have risen to such levels, but there’s also no question that without the legal requirement, county government would never have provided the vital capital funding needed by the city schools.

Even now, it’s frequently suggested that county government should not have to send money to Memphis City Schools if it sends funds to Shelby County Schools for a new school. Of course, there is never a mention of the fact that city schools has documented renovation and construction needs of about $500 million.

Next Steps

If there is to be an end to ADA requirements, there needs to be a workable, dependable agreement that addresses the capital needs of Memphis City Schools. It’s always been a source of amazement to us that although the vast majority of county taxpayers were paying more taxes because of sprawl in District 4, the politically-connected developers being enriched by the direct subsidy to uncontrolled growth were never seen as the problem. Rather, it was Memphis City Schools.

Any time Memphis City Schools received funding as a result of ADA for maintenance of its deteriorating – some even inhabitable – schools, an alarm was sounded like the future of Western Civilization was hanging in the balance.

That difference of opinion aside, the recommendations of the process seem level-headed. They call for development of a funding model that takes into account the special needs of students; for school budgets to be submitted to the county mayor so they can be evaluated in the context of the total Shelby County budget; for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ approval to be required for both districts’ budgets with binding arbitration if disapproved; for creation of Joint Board of Control to oversee school renovation and construction; for development of dedicated funding for capital needs; for intensive lobbying of state elected officials for full BEP funding; and for suing to receive the $30 million shortfall in state funding identified by Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz.

But clearly, the centerpiece recommendation for the report is to move to Shelby County Government as the single source of funding for public schools. We’ve written enough about the wisdom of this approach that we won’t belabor it here, but it seems to us that after 15 years of talking about it, it’s an idea whose time has come.

Common Ground

The recommendations also dusted off that old reliable magic answer – freezing of the school boundaries – but at least this time, it’s suggested that it’s only temporary. We continue to see more downside than upside for Memphis City Schools for such a proposal, and any way, school boundaries were frozen when the urban growth boundaries were established in keeping with Chapter 1101.

Finally, the report calls for an “education summit,” but we hope that doesn’t mean yet another large-scale public meeting on these issues. At this point, we’d like to see the people elected to resolve these issues agree to meet in a manageable, organized process and to come up with the long-term, imaginative answers that are needed. Unfortunately, Memphis has gotten too adept at summits and too poor at solutions.

Our community has talked school issues to death for 20 years. Now is the time to look to our elected officials for proposals that result from rolling up their sleeves, looking for the compromises that are the grease of our political system and considering innovative answers to these well-worn problems.

Whatever lies ahead, Commissioner Carpenter deserves accolades for his one-man crusade for reason and consensus, and the best news of all is that now, his report gives every one a common place to start in developing solutions.