Tuesday, April 15, 2008

And City Budget Hearings Haven't Even Begun Yet

It’s one of those weeks when we have to fight the thought that our elected officials are losing their minds.

And it’s only Tuesday.

First, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton announces – without a hint of concern about the average city taxpayer – that he’ll be seeking a 17 percent property tax increase this year.

Attention Grabbers

A few things about his plan caught our attention:

• That the mayor treats the city’s fund balance, now approaching $80 million, as if it’s sacred while he’s willing to close community centers and libraries to save $1.5-2.0 million. With a large tax increase staring Memphians in the face, it’s time for the mayor to explain why the city’s bond rating is more important than the citizen’s tax rate. The fund balance is often called the “rainy day” fund for city government, but last time we checked, there’s a serious storm brewing over Memphis, and it’s time to spend some of that money on the taxpayers whose money it is in the first place.

• That he seems oblivious to the symbolic value – not to mention the clear need – to put employee layoffs on the table. The Wharton Administration gets it: the majority of public budgets is in personnel costs, and if you want to whittle down budget requests, you have to address the size of the workforce. At the least, county elected officials seem to understand what taxpayers are looking for – tough times demand touch decisions, and they want to see some.

• That he trots out his threadbare cure-all – consolidation – as the answer to local governments’ financial problems. At best, it’s naïve or at worse, a worrisome ignorance of the fundamental forces driving public budgets and the fundamental solutions to them. To contend that we should put our attention and energy into another push for consolidation is nothing but a distraction and a waste of energy. The real answers are found in reforming our taxes, in rationalizing the responsibilities of city and county governments and in equalizing the tax structure.

Yet Again

Then, there’s Memphis Councilman Joe Brown, whose malapropisms, flawed syllogisms and faulty hard wiring appear to know no bounds. This time, while arguing against a relaxation of the residency requirement so Memphis can hire the police officers it needs to protect its citizens, he questioned whether people in other communities are smart enough to do the job and questioned their views on race.

We thought we remembered the city lowering its educational requirements to be a police officer to a high school diploma, and the average educational attainment in these communities is much higher than that. It occurs to us that if these people just aren’t that bright, we need to recruit them for Super District 8, Position 1. Apparently, high IQ is no prerequisite for that seat.

As for race, Councilman Brown is right. Every one of us is concerned about race – the race to get into our houses before we become victims of crime. Even for a man who’s never shown any reluctance to toss a racial warhead into an otherwise reasonable debate, it was just the latest shameful exhibition of his willingness to use race, prejudice and scapegoating for his own personal political purposes.

Remedial Education

Then, there’s the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, who thumbed their collective nose at Memphis City Council’s request for school officials to answer some questions at its education committee meeting. The Council probably was apparently laboring under the mistaken notion that its $93 million in funding to the city schools this year at least entitled it to common courtesy and good manners.

Put simply, the Council was clearly within its rights to ask its intended questions about alternative schools, discipline, graduation rates and student academic performance. Perhaps, if the school board actually was prepared to serve as the forum for these kind of critical and candid conversations, they wouldn’t be getting the invitation to come to City Hall.

The school board’s clumsy politics largely paints Memphis City Schools as a paranoid organization where every one manages to see every question by anybody these days as part of a grand plan by Mayor Herenton to become the next superintendent.

Bad Form

Actually, the no-show by the district plays more into the mayor’s grand plan than anything, because once again, it suggests that the board and the superintendent are defensive, secretive and controlling – all the things that are anathema to any part of the public sector, but particularly in the $1 billion enterprise known as Memphis City Schools.

Reports from Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s office are that he was instructed – with little argument from him – to boycott the Council committee meeting and to prevent any administrators from attending. And to show how politically tone deaf he is and how political bungling runs deep at the district, he even suggested that if the Council had any questions, they should put them in writing.

About now, some grown-up at Memphis City Schools needs to remember one central truth: school funding by city government, which accounts for 10% of the school district’s total budget, is not required by law and it can be eliminated at any time. It’s also worth remembering that if Council deleted the optional school funding, it not only would immediately balance the Memphis budget without a tax increase, but it would allow a much-needed tax cut of about 34 cents. Put another way, the city property tax rate would not go up to $4.01, but down to about $3.09.

At this point, the Council would be well within its rights to remove school funding from the proposed budget for FY ’09 until it gets the answers to its questions from Memphis City Schools.


Tomeka Hart said...

There has been a misunderstanding regarding this situation. Please find below a copy of the April 10th email I sent (typos and all!) to Councilwoman Fullilove regarding the Memphis City Schools' attendance at the council's education committee meetings.

I assure you the MCS Board and staff have no problems answering questions!

To: Janis.Fullilove@memphistn.gov
From: Tomeka Hart/Admin/Avery/MCS
Date: 04/10/2008 08:06PM
cc: Joann Tuggers/Admin/Avery/MCS@MCS, Thelma Crivens/Admin/Avery/MCS@MCS, Scott.McCormick@memphistn.gov
Subject: CORRECTED: Education Committee Meetings

Councilwoman Fullilove,

I left you a voicemail, but decided to send you this email in case we do not connect today. We need clarification regarding the MCS presentations to the Education Committee. As I stated to you when we met, I feel strongly that the School Board and City Council should have a good working relationship; certainly one better than what the bodies have had in the past. The two bodies should be committed to working together to make sure our children and citizens receive the best service as related to their education, standard/conditions of living, safety/security, well-being, etc. To do so, the two bodies should meet on a regular basis to discuss the issues affecting our children and communities. With that, I want to make sure the bodies understand their roles and reporting responsibilities.

While I had hoped that we could work together to develop an annual agenda (i.e. quarterly meetings to discuss selected issues), the MCS staff has received requests to report to the committee on a bi-monthly basis (once or twice with a week's notice), and to be prepared to discuss broad management level issues. It is difficult for our staff to prepare for such a meeting, and as you know under Tennessee Code Annotated, the Superintendent reports to the School Board, with his/her staff reporting to him/her. Additionally, the TCA defines the role of the Superintendent and the Board, giving the responsibilities of management to the Superintendent and that of governance and policy setting to the School Board. Thus, under state law, the School Board does not even have the authority to control the management function of education.

While we don't want to create another reporting body for the MCS staff, we certainly understand the Council's need and desire for more information regarding the district in efforts of holding the district accountable for the funds you provide. To that end, we have always provided the Council with our annual audit and a detailed annual budget to assist you in making your funding decisions. The Superintendent and Board members have and will always attend the budget presentation to answer any questions the Education Committee and Council may have. Further, as I stated in our meeting, I look forward to the members of the Board meeting and working with the Council more regularly.
When the Education Committee voted to require us to make a presention of our audit to the Audit Committee, it did so on the basis that the council requires all of its quasi-governmental bodies to do so. The MCS was created by the Tennessee Legislature and is thus an actual governmental body; not a quasi-governmental body operating under the arms of the Council. To be sure, the Council's resolution establishing this requirement does not list MCS as a body required to present its audit. However, in the spirit of collaboration, we send you our annual audit each year. Further, Martavius Jones (Vice-President and Chair of our Audit Committee) and I will gladly meet with the committee to discuss our audit. However, we are not available do so on May 6, but would like to set a time that is convenient for the committee and us. I will set this up with Councilman Boyd.

As for the meeting on April 15, the MCS has historically submitted our budgets to the Council's and Commission's education committes on April 15, giving you time to review it and develop your questions. The Superintendent and Board members then return at a later date to answer the Education Committee's questions. The budget is then presented to the full council. We plan to submit the budget to your committee on April 15, and then the Superintendent, I and any other Board member who wants to attend, are scheduled to meet with your committee on May 20 to answer any questions you may have.

Please call me when you get an opportunity so we can discuss this. I welcome the opportunity to have a closer working relationship with the Council. I just want to make sure we do it properly, respecting the roles and responsibilities of each other. Also, I would like to assure you that the School Board and staff are very much aware of the issues and challenges facing the MCS. The School Board acts within its power and challenges the Superintendent to address the issues and to provide effective solutions.

Tomeka Hart

Janis Fullilove said...

Ms. Hart, there certainly has been a big misunderstanding. For starters, I never recieved your email, that's not to say it wasn't sent. I have hundreds of emails that I, along with my assitant, receive on a daily basis, it's viturally impossible to read them all. Yours obviously was an oversight, I did in fact receive your voice mail, that simply said, " please give me a call" and I did, without a call back. The arogance of putting it writing questions that myself and other committee members would like to know, was a bit arrogant. And according to Commissioner Whalum many felt they didn't owe us any explanations regarding transparency, accountability, graduation rates, alternative schools etc. While we can approve your budget, we can also take a hands off approach as well. I look forward to a working relationship with the board, but I don't think I can stomach a prima donna attitude.

Tomeka Hart said...

Councilwoman Fullilove,

Clearly there has been a misunderstanding at best, and I apologize for any confusion caused on my behalf. My April 10th email expresses my sincere desire for us to work together and build a stronger relationship. The MCS would like to be fully prepared when we do meet with you. I hope you will recall that in preparation for our March meeting, I called you to get clarification on the committee's questions, so that we would be prepared. Thus, the tone of the request for having the questions in writing is so that we could be prepared to answer them when we do meet. There was never any intention that written answers would replace the Board's attendance at a meeting addressing those questions.

We have always expressed a willingness to work with the Council. There has never been a time when the MCS did not respond to the council's request for information. Thus, I am perplexed at the notion that the district is adverse to being held accountable. That notion contradicts our years of working with the council, answering all questions presented. It is further contrary to the many public meetings we hold addressing same.

As noted in my email, I fully understand the Council's desire and need for information as it makes its funding decisions. I hope this will clear up the misunderstanding. We have important work to do and should focus all of our energy on working together to serve this community's children. Thanks for understanding.

Anonymous said...

Can we get a payroll tax, please.

Anonymous said...

Ah, shouldn't Hart and Fullilove be calling each other, rather than coresponding via a blog comment section? I might be wrong but that seems more efficient.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous 4:35,

Far to rational for anyone elected to any office in this city. I think it is absolutely fascinating that they have chosen to do this.

Perhaps this is what they think the calls for transparency means.

Smart City Consulting said...

As for us, we appreciate the fact that Commissioner Hart took the time to comment and provide her perspective, as did Council member Fullilove. It gets their points of view on the record, which is helpful as they resolve this issue. Based on past comments from them, this is consistent with their willingness to express their opinions and to "talk" with constituents. So as some of those constituents, we appreciated it.

Anonymous said...

As inefficient as it may seem, it appears that this might be a good place for Commissioner Hart to correspond with Councilwoman Fullilove. Apparently, you can't count on Fullilove to get an email, but if you post it on this blog you get a response.

Anonymous said...

Hart and Fullilove..

What a pair !! I haven't seen such incompetant buffoonery since Laurel and Hardy were on the silver screen.

And we as Memphians keep electing individuals like this to governing office, we ought to get used to such ridiculous behaviour and outcome.

Don't forget to put our illustrious Mayor, ordained by God himself, in that catagory as well.

Aren't there any TRUE leaders in Memphis at all ?

Are we THAT starved for efficient and honest leadership ?

Anonymous said...

We are!
I hardly count a public symantic argument via blog as honesty or transparency. Get real.
I'm not buying this.
This is fake.

Anonymous said...

You know, i consulted a college principal in London who has been buying colleges all over the world, and i asked what a budget of 900 milion U$D would do. They laffed at me when I said that was our city schools budget, Yes, they've been here. I told her what our results are and explained how the desceptive reporting practice and showed the schools report cards. She said we are being ripped off on a colossal scale.
Why is it that you can't make sense with the budget. You know it is astronomically out of touch with reality and yet you do nothing about it.
We are supposed to trust and believe you?
It isn't going to happen.
Where is all that money going?

Kelvin Oliver said...

Some behind the scenes action of city officials within Memphis City Schools and outside the district. When will everyone come together to actually talk things out and layout the plans to see what can be changed? As I'm doing my research paper on the issue of school assessment, I find myself confused because everyone is going in different directions. Maybe I should just do a series of blogs about MEMPHIS CITY SCHOOLS to narrow everything down to a better understanding!

Anonymous said...

Dear Kelvin,
Some of us have been trying to do that for years. Good Luck

Kelvin Oliver said...

I imagine. I guess we have to find other ways of awareness.

Anonymous said...

I can't afford an increase in property taxes. If this isn't a rainy day, I don't know what is!

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