This just in: Memphis schools may be shut down
The city of Memphis owes the schools district millions of dollars. So the board decided to shut down the schools' August 8 starting date:
Classes for Memphis City Schools will not start this fall until the City Council deposits $55 million -- the amount the city has budgeted for schools from tax revenue -- in the district's account, school board members decided Tuesday night.
The board voted 8-1 to delay the start of the school year indefinitely, putting the system in the limelight as the district attempts to force city leaders to make good on funding promises.
"We've been patient; we've cut 1,500 jobs," said board member Tomeka Hart. "We're not going for everything. We're not saying give us everything you owe. We are just saying we have to have the money in the bank from our city so we can pay our bills.
"It's a difficult situation they are in but we can't continue to sacrifice our difficult situation to help them out of theirs. We did not create this situation, and we are a governing body as well."
City Council president Myron Lowery said several of the funding issues are tied up in court and therefore not negotiable right now.
"The council supplies less than 10 percent of almost a billion-dollar school budget," Lowery said. "They have voted to delay for having less than 10 percent in hand. That is ridiculous."
He blames the problem on poor communication between Supt. Kriner Cash and Mayor AC Wharton.
School employees will not be paid until school starts, throwing thousands of Memphians into a quandary, including Sarah Harper, who said, "as much as I would like to get paid, as much I need to get paid, let's not muddy the water about what the real issue is. Our children are being made the pawns. The city of Memphis needs to fund Memphis City Schools and fund them now. Demand they make this right.
"We've got to have the money. If we don't have it, we can't open the doors," she told the board, her voice rising with emotion. "I will guarantee you this city would be up in arms if they have to teach their children at home or find somewhere for them to go."
The vote came 21/2 hours into the emergency meeting, with impassioned arguments on both sides from members of the teachers union.
Cash said the board had spoken but said it was no victory.
"Our children need to be in school. I can't tell you that passionately or emphatically enough. I am going to keep fighting to get a resolution," he said, but made no promises. "What's next? I expect the city to be in touch with us."
Earlier, Wharton was perplexed by the board's discussion to delay, telling the City Council that money to fully fund the district had been set aside.
"The money is in the budget -- no ifs, ands or buts about it," he said. "On Friday, I stated to Dr. Cash that we have fully funded Memphis City Schools for the fiscal year 2012. The money is there, point blank. I don't know how to state that with any more clarity."
Wharton was visibly upset, at times pounding the podium in the council chambers.
The district says the city has shorted it $151 million over four years, including $78.4 million for the 2011-12 school year.
The city has not approved the district’s budget, required by state law. The district is to submit its budget to the state by Aug. 1. School had been scheduled to start Aug. 8.
If MCS cannot produce an approved budget showing the city is paying its fair share for schools by Oct. 1, new Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman told Cash on Tuesday that he would withhold state funding for MCS.
At 50 percent, the state is the largest provider of funds for public education in Memphis.
MCS board president Martavius Jones cast the lone vote against the move to delay the start of school after talking on the phone with Wharton during a recess in the meeting.
"I didn't get a commitment from him. I tried," Jones said, adding that the best solution would be one that didn't hurt taxpayers. "The city is going to have to take this out of their reserves (and) that will make borrowing costs go up, which hurts taxpayers."
While the city has approved the money, it has not been sent to the school system because the council has not yet approved the district's budget, as required by state law.
While Jones said he has never known the council not to approve the budget before school started, it was not approved until Sept. 14 last year, more than a month after the start of school.
But the environment this year is different, said school board attorney Dorsey Hopson, because the council's legal position in the merger with Shelby County Schools is that the city schools no longer exist.
Well, the school district is certainly right about one thing (left unspoken): The second parents will have to scramble around for day-care (which unfortunately many parents feel is the primary function of school districts rather than promoting learning), they will hold their elected city officials's feet to the fire.