With apologies to Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic is the best way we know to describe the approach by some members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners anytime the budget of the Shelby County Schools appears on their agendas.
They twist and turn the facts to fit their talking points, tie themselves in mental knots, and engage in revisionist history. It’s all a common feature of national politics these days, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it up close and personal during discussions about the $27.4 million funding request from Shelby County Schools.
There is nothing quite as comical as suburban commissioners suddenly outraged by the fact that residents in suburban towns pay twice for schools. It is impossible of course to remember a single comment of concern when the shoe was on the other foot and it was Memphis taxpayers paying twice.
In addition, in their hue and cry, the same commissioners conveniently overlook the fact that the residents of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington had two opportunities to pay only once for education and they made the choice to pay twice.
Some commissioners pursued the same lines of pretzel logic last week when Shelby County Schools Dorsey Hopson appeared before their budget committee to request the $27.4 million that is needed to close the gap in his district’s budget.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Terry Roland doled out another comment long on insult and short on common sense, saying Memphis city government is like “a deadbeat dad” that contributes “nothing” to education funding.
Commissioner David Reaves joined in by taking a gratuitous, and equally misleading, shot at Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. He said that if the mayor is serious about being “brilliant at the basics,” he would fund schools. “Every other mayor in Shelby County believes that education is part of the basics except him,” said Mr. Reaves. “And what we have going on with Memphis pulling out of education, I think, is a detriment to the school system.”
Previously, he has also said he is bewildered about why Memphians do not have to pay twice for schools like his town constituents for education.
Of course, the answer is pretty simple: unlike the towns, Memphis does not have a school district. Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington do. As a result, the residents of those towns pay taxes into their own independent school districts, just as Memphians did for about a century before giving up their school district’s charter.
Memphis Support For Schools
Back then, whenever the question of tax equity for Memphians was raised, no one was quicker to respond than the suburban legislators – whether in county or state governments – and they regularly offered up justifications for why it made perfectly good sense for Memphians to pay twice. And we suspect that if Commissioner Reaves had been on the county legislative body at the time, he would never have said that the lack of school funding from the towns was a “detriment” to schools. Far from it, he would have been at the head of the chorus chanting that all was right with the world and provided some pretzel logic to make his case.
Many people have already pointed out that Memphians pay 62% of the county property taxes and that 61% of the property taxes go to support schools, and therefore, Memphis taxpayers do indeed support schools. But more to the point, Memphians support schools with significant sales tax revenues. One-half of the local option sales taxes collected inside Memphis is provided to schools.
Come to think of it, if Mr. Roland and Mr. Reaves are really that concerned about schools, they would reverse the changes made during the Wharton Administration for how schools are funded. Before the change, schools received yearly increases based on the growth of county revenues, but that was changed by the Wharton Administration. Instead, schools were changed to a set amount, and it’s a key reason why funding for other county services have outpaced school funding.
The commissioners have even trotted out the threadbare red herring about a top-heavy bureaucracy with high administrative costs at Shelby County Schools, choosing to ignore the reality that only 2.2% of the Shelby County Schools budget is spent on administration, which by the way, is lower than administrative costs for county government.
Cut Nose, Spite Face
Suburban county commissioners have an unerring tendency to make up their own history and ignore the fact that it was the old Shelby County Schools district that knocked over the dominoes that gave them the new Shelby County Schools district. For example, it was the political machinations of the old Shelby County Schools to chase legislation to become a special school district that led to Memphis City Schools board, by 5-4 vote, to surrender its charter and Memphis voters to approve it at referendum in the following year by an almost 2 to 1 margin.
Even then, the old Shelby County Schools officials were in denial about Memphians’ right to self-determination, pursuing legal challenges and state actions to prevent Memphians from being charge of their own affairs.
Often, suburban politicians have cut off their nose to spite their face. For example, in November, 2010, consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County Governments barely passed inside Memphis and was trounced outside Memphis. To be approved, it had to pass in each place separately.
With suburban elected officials trading in fear and misinformation, it was hardly noticed by their constituents that if they had approved consolidation of city and county governments, it would have kept in place the legacy school districts, Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.
Let us say it plain: if consolidation had passed, nothing would have changed for schools in the towns. Their vote against consolidation kept it from happening.
Progress Is Hard
Then again, the towns had another opportunity to keep from paying twice for schools. They could have remained part of the unified school district that was created following the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter. Again, fueled by scare tactics that demonized students and vilified teachers in Memphis classrooms and fueled by stereotypes about property values, elected officials in the suburban towns voted to set up their own districts.
As we wrote in the run ups to the votes to establish the districts, the studies commissioned by the towns gave a distinctly rosy picture about the costs to taxpayers for new districts. It was all part of the political strategy to seduce town residents into the belief that a school district could come at a bargain.
Meanwhile, in their comments, suburban county commissioners continue to deride schools inside Memphis and dismiss the progress being made there. Nothing is as difficult as urban education, a fact not fully appreciated by these commissioners who prefer to funnel more and more tax money into the criminal justice system than adequately fund schools.
There is no one inside Memphis who doesn’t want the pace of Shelby County Schools’ progress to be faster, but there are important accomplishments being reached and you would think that the commissioners whose government is statutorily required to fund schools would know that and do whatever is possible to create more momentum.
After all, the Millington School system in Commissioner Roland’s district has its own challenges. Schools there had the greatest decline in third grade reading proficiency and the greatest decline in seventh grade math proficiency of all the districts in Shelby County. We don’t raise this to belittle Commissioner Roland’s schools, but the fact is that education is hard when it has to confront the barriers created by poverty and need, and he should now it. (Millington has a poverty rate of 19.3%, which is four to six times greater than any other suburban town.)
At Shelby County Schools, enough progress is being made in its iZone schools that the Chattanooga school district is looking to replicate them and that Nashville media have highlighted stories asking why their schools can’t make as much progress as Shelby County Schools, whose proficiency growth rate leads the state for urban school districts.
Finally, back to Memphis funding schools. Here’s a blog post comment left by veteran reporter Jimmie Covington, an expert on educational funding: “The Shelby County Commission traditionally has been a low funder of school operations. Why should anyone believe that situation would change…Some current commissioners and others have called for Memphis city government to provide some funding for the county school system; however, at this point, the city probably does not have any authority to appropriate any funding for county schools. And even if it does, there is a question about whether those funds would have to be shared with the suburban municipal school districts. Another point on schools to remember is that county mayors have great political influence but they have no authority or responsibility when it comes to schools.”
In other words, some county commissioners may try to say up is down and down is up, but facts are facts, and they contradict so much that is said about funding for Shelby County Schools in board of commissioners’ meeting. Even more, the facts clearly make the case that Shelby County Schools’ request for $27.4 million is justified and deserved. Even pretzel logic can’t obscure that reality.
Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis.