What to do about pre-K now that voters shot down the measure to increase the county sales tax by a half-cent? Roughly half of the estimated $60 million raised from the new tax could have helped the Unified School District expand the program to help thousands of children.
Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz says he will have to go to option "B."
Option "B" is not pretty. It is a property tax. The tax could be $.30, maybe even higher. The money would go to the Unified School District but with strings attached. Commissioner Ritz believes he has the votes to get it done.
Pre-K instruction is widely accepted as a way to help children improve their learning skills at an early age.
"This is the game changer for our children in order to make sure that our children are ready for academic success," said Dr. Carolyn Harvey from Memphis Public Schools. "It must happen here and it must happen now."
It won't happen now, though. Not universal pre-K in the Unified School District.
Voters rejected a measure to increase the sales tax by half-cent to raise and estimated $60 million. Half of the money would have gone the Unified School District that made public commitments to expand pre-K.
That option is off the table.
"We are going to have to go back to the County Commission and look for the other source of revenue and that is going to be a proposed tax increase", says Billy Orgel, Unified School Board Chairman.
It won't be a sales tax increase but a property tax hike that Commissioner Ritz will propose.
The Unified School District could have to face a $60 million deficit if it enacts all the recommendations by the Transition Planning Commission, which included universal pre-K.
"The issue with $60 million is that it takes about $.40," Commissioner Ritz said. "When you get close to $.40, it then requires nine votes on the county commission. We don't have nine per the Shelby County Commission. I'm very confident that the county commission is going to require some commitments from the school board concerning pre-k to give them the money we have described."
Until the board acts, all education programs for the Unified School District are back on the chopping block. Included is reducing the plans to spend $3 million each year for five years, to add 2,500 news spaces for pre-K.
"You are going to have to go back and look at all your programs and I don't know if it's going to be good for all your students," Orgel said.
Education experts warn that without new funding the overburdened pre-K system will become even more crowded.
"We have 406 students on our wait list," Dr. Harvey said. "These are children who we have screened and they qualify but the spaces are not available."
Outgoing Memphis School Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash said federal funding may evaporate if Congress doesn't intervene.
Unless the county commission passes a property tax increase, universal pre-K may become the dream differed.
"We can't as board members say, or elected officials say, out of one side of our mouths that education is important and out of the other say, we are not willing to fund it and we are not willing to make tough choices to find it," Orgel said.