At a budget retreat this morning, the unified school board requested an additional $145 million in funding from the Shelby County Commission.
"I thought they weren't serious. I, really, when I heard $145 million request, I thought ‘Well they're not serious about taking care of business,'" says Shelby Co. Commissioner Chris Thomas, "$145 million is unrealistic and that's the thing. The money they're asking for is not a realistic number."
Commissioners immediately counter offered, saying the maximum funding increase they could receive is $45 million.
"If they did get $145 million, we just gave them the easy way out instead of demanding they make the tough decisions that we made years ago on the county school system to make it an efficient, lean, mean education machine," says Shelby Co. Commissioner Wyatt Bunker.
Commissioners say even the $45 million additional funding will mean a tax increase, but school board members claim it won't be much additional on property taxes.
"A $150,000 home will see an increase in their property tax rate of $31 per month: The equivalent to a cup of coffee to make an additional investment in education," says Unified School Board Member Martavious Jones.
Bunker says the tax rate would increase by one dollar, but he says when Shelby County Schools faced similar budget situations they had to put politics aside. He says they made cuts that made some people happy, but not all.
"Shelby County Schools between $7,000 and $8,000 per student was able to produce more teachers, more teacher assistance, more librarians in their schools than Memphis City Schools was with about $10,000 per pupil," says Bunker.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell says the unified schools budget needs to be handled like our personal finances, adding that it should be a multi-year process and everything is not needed on day one.
"School board members and county commissioners need to look at this budget from the standpoint of their personal bank account," he says, "How much money's in your personal bank account? Know what you can afford. Know what you want. You have to prioritize what you want with what you've got."
Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland skipped out on the school budget discussion, leaving the retreat after discussing the county budget. He says fellow commissioner Melvin Burgess' position as Memphis City School Audit Director is a conflict of interest when it comes to unified school budget talks.
"They're in there talking right now about whether to keep his job or not," says Roland, "See, Shelby County Schools does not have an auditing department. So at the end of the day, he could be voting on his own job or his own salary. And look: we're here today at Memphis City Schools. Why didn't he find a neutral spot?"
Burgess says the county finds no conflict of interest.
"My major goal today was to get the commissioners here, get the staff from finance, so they could just understand the budget process and what we're going to be faced with. The tax rate and just an overview of our general fund balance, OPEB, liability expenses, and I think I accomplished that today," says Burgess.