There’s encouraging new momentum for a more rational approach to funding public education, and before it ends, we hope it won’t be déjà vu all over again.
In our April 27 post, we said that the decision by Memphis City Council to cut school funding could be the catalyst for a progressive, new look at school funding, specifically making Shelby County Government the source for all educational funding in our community.
It appears that this new look is about to take place, building on Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter’s fine work to spark a new conversation about school funding. We wrote recently about the wisdom in the conclusions of that process, so we won’t go into detail again here, but suffice it to say, single source funding is the centerpiece of the recommendations.
In an equally encouraging sign, new Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chair Deidre Malone now has set the creation of a fast-tracked new school funding structure as a priority for her one-year term. Her stepped-up schedule calls for recommendations that can be presented to the Tennessee Legislature when it convenes in January.
That ambitious timeline requires unprecedented cooperation and collaboration in the intergovernmental family, but we admire the commissioners for trying. While our personal preference would be to eliminate the daylong summit – which here has too often become the substitute for real action – and move directly into real meetings to develop a plan, hope springs eternal with us on this issue.
Hopefully, this time around, single source funding will finally be an idea whose time has come. But if the past is the best predictor of the future, we need to keep our expectations low.
After all, there’s been at least three other times that a process has been launched to move toward the same destination, dating back to when Bill Morris was mayor of Shelby County. Each time, the process derailed over the inability of some key partner to set aside their own special interest and act in the best interest of the community as a whole.
A couple of times, it was Memphis City Schools that became the obstacle that could not be overcome, but in fairness, its concerns were that a new formula might not provide the extra funding needed for education of at-risk students. On another occasion, the obstacles came from so many directions that they could never find a middle ground and the process collapsed.
Last time around, the discussion was propelled by Memphis businessman Russell Gwatney, whose grasp of the issue surpassed most people in the public sector. Because of his leadership, the Memphis Regional Chamber strongly supported single source funding for both school districts and the administration of then-mayor Jim Rout convened a process of key partners to hammer out an agreement. The committee met for months and despite the shared priority of single source funding, it could never resolve concerns from the school districts.
A Better Way
Back then, Mr. Gwatney (to whom we extend our condolences upon the tragic recent murder of his brother) 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
Moving Toward Fairness
Some of these recommendations resurfaced in the final report by Commissioner Carpenter. In the past, despite general agreement on the philosophy, it’s been impossible to agree on the principles for making it happen.
As we’ve said often, the lack of tax equity for Memphians is reason enough for City of Memphis Government to end funding for schools that began 70 years ago when rural schools were given preferential treatment and funding by Shelby County Government. Today, this city funding is fundamentally unfair and inequitable.
Hopefully, this new process will be a major step forward in leveling the tax playing field, and if Chair Malone and Commissioner Carpenter can be successful, perhaps, it will just be the beginning.
If we’re really lucky, maybe, just maybe, the success in improving school funding would inspire a new look at the unfair tax burden of Memphians generally. With a majority of commissioners representing Memphis taxpayers, there’s no public body more appropriate to analyze the tax fairness issue, and to determine if some other services funded twice by Memphis taxpayers could also be services that need single source funding.