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Unified board presents budget to commissioners

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DOWNTOWN MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

For weeks the majority of us have either heard or read something about the unified school board's work on its budget. The official unveiling of their efforts came before an anxious Shelby County Commission Wednesday morning.

But if people were expecting fireworks from commission members they would have been surprised at how docile they appeared to receive the multi-million dollar budget request.

They've been portrayed on many occasions in the last year as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight." The much maligned unified school board has felt the stings of criticism about what seemed their bumbling failure to make major progress on the merger of city and county schools.

But, based on an appearance before the commission's budget committee you can say "don't believe the hype."

On the final day of the school year in Memphis, members of the unified school board were just beginning a series of critical oral exams on next year's county-wide school budget in front of stern faced county commissioners. It wasn't like commissioners didn't know what was coming and Interim Superintendent Dorsey Hopson didn't sugarcoat what he had to say.

"For the budget we have come up with and the board has approved the budget gap is about $30.1 million," Hopson said.

Yet, if those in attendance had expected Hopson was leading his troops into some Custer-like ambush. They were surprised instead by a presentation and discussion that was without any semblance of the histrionics the governmental body has a reputation for.

In laying out the alleged cut to the bone budget slashed by $75 million, Hopson pointed to an $18 million cut in central office staff, $12.7 million saved in outsourcing custodial work and nearly $19 million in cutting school-based staffers. He noted 1,271 positions will be eliminated overall.

Hopson's expert verbal volleying with commissioners did hit a slight snag when it came to a familiar harangue, former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, never did a convincing job of warding off the high salaries of administrators and support staff.

"When I see $159,000 salary for a security director for the school system, it's got 140 employees," said Commissioner Wyatt Bunker. "You got the director of Memphis City Police Department who's paid considerably less. He's got thousands. He's got 2,000 or 3,000 employees. Does that make any sense to anybody?"

But, what would a county commission meeting be without a little sniping - not at their guests, just among themselves.

"Some of my colleagues don't want to give you a dime," Commissioner Sidney Chism said. "They don't care if it folds up. They don't care if the kids are educated or not. They don't want to give you a dime, in my opinion."

So, give Round 1 in the school budget battle to the formerly embattled unified school board. It wasn't a knockout, but they won strictly on the goodwill points derived from being prepared.

"The staff made a great presentation based on data," said school board member Tomeka Hart. "Not based on hyperbole. Not based on fear. It was based on data and it was based on facts."

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