This post is written by Jimmie Covington, veteran Memphis reporter with lengthy experience covering governmental, school, and demographic issues. He is a contributing writer with The Best Times, a monthly news magazine for active people 50 and older.
By Jimmie Covington
From the point the first Shelby County mayor took office in 1976 until A C Wharton’s county mayoral administration and several new County Commission members took office in 2002, “maintenance of effort” in local funding of public schools in the county was never a problem.
And it has not been a problem since then. However, in the mid-2000s to meet their own political purposes, leaders in the Wharton administration and several commissioners decided it was a “problem” and that they could switch funds around and cap the amount of local funds going to schools.
That move allowed the growth revenue, which usually went to school operations each year as a result of each penny on the property tax bringing in more revenue than the previous year, to be shifted to paying bond debt, a responsibility of central county government.
“Maintenance of effort” is a state law that says that local funding for school operations cannot be reduced from year to year. Courts have created an exception that a reduction may occur if enrollment drops.
In 2008, Memphis City Council members mistakenly decided that state law did not require the city to continue its maintenance of effort in providing funding for the then Memphis City Schools. The council cut funding for the schools. It also reduced the city’s property tax rate.
The state’s courts rejected the city position but it took several years to settle the whole thing. By then, a majority of city school board members as well as city voters in a 2011 referendum approved surrender of the city school system’s charter. Public schools in Memphis were shifted to the county school board. The change reduced funding for schools in Memphis.
The activities may have left some county officials thinking that maintenance of effort is a problem although there has not been a situation where it has been.
Current county Mayor Mark Luttrell’s administration and commissioners who came into office in 2010 plus commissioners who have moved into office since then continued to keep growth funds from schools. Should schools be denied growth funds when the rest of county government receives them?
Through the years since at least 2007, county trustees, including the current trustee, David Lenoir, have assisted the administration and commissioners in eliminating growth funds for schools. The trustees held back some of the property tax funds for schools each year until the next year.
Officials have never presented a legal opinion that the trustee has the authority to delay the funds.
Also, figures in the county’s 2017 financial report for the fiscal year that ended last June 30 provide a clue that county officials may have improperly used $2.5 million from the government’s general fund to cover a school funding gap.
Years ago, the state’s courts held that property taxpayers had a right to know before they paid their taxes whether the funds would be used for schools or general government and that it is not proper to mix the funds.