Thursday, June 19, 2008

Council Gets Capitol Punishment From Governor

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen sure has his panties in a wad.

Or at least that was a political friend's highly accurate – albeit inelegantly and highly colloquial – assessment.

The governor appeared to be fuming because the Memphis City Council had acted within its legal rights to control its own budgets and priorities. In fact, we have vague memories of the governor's irritation about Washington telling the State of Tennessee what it had to do. As a result, he should have tempered his rant about City Council doing what legislative bodies do – controlling the budget and setting the tax rate.

Giving Council The Business

As a highly successful businessman, Governor Bredesen was famous for his thorough, methodical analysis of an opportunity and a problem and for clear-eyed decision-making in the end. In fact, he brought the same skill set to the governor's office, where his staff knows to present most issues as a business proposition in anticipation of the governor putting together his own term sheet before making a decision.

When it came to this Memphis issue, however, the governor seems to clearly have abandoned the qualities that have made him so successful. This time he seemed to reach conclusions without any deep knowledge of the issues, and in oversimplifying the question, he not only engaged in highly unusual behavior, but he managed to politicize these issues even more at a time when they are in need of statesmanship.

It's more than passing strange that at a time when he's lecturing City Council about its obligations to education, he's allowing himself the option of doing the same thing with state budgets. He has equally tough decisions about budgets, and as we recall, one involved cutting the funding for higher education at the precise time that a strong university presence is a major determinant in whether cities and states prosper. There are numerous other services whose state budgets are being pared back, but apparently, that is allowed at the state level; however, when Memphis City Council exercises the same prerogative, they've overstepped their bounds.


We hope that in the next few days, Governor Bredesen will take some time to gather the facts and ask the kinds of laser-like questions for which he is known. For example, it might be a good time for him to ask his own Department of Education why it has shown so much preferential treatment to Nashville's schools woes while essentially giving lip service to ours. Several years ago, when Memphis City Schools was on the same high priority list that Nashville school district is on today, DOE did precious little to transform Memphis City Schools with some much-needed leadership, direct help and resources. As we've pointed out previously, that's sure not the case when it comes to the center of the universe in Middle Tennessee.

While he's at it, we hope the governor will also research why Memphis is the only major city in Tennessee that is expected to fund schools. Nashville doesn't do it. Knoxville doesn't do it. Chattanooga doesn't do it. Even Jackson doesn't do it.

Yes, we know that all of those cities have consolidated their districts, and perhaps, that's where the governor's influence would be put to better use.

Board Rooms, Not Courtrooms

Perhaps, he could even be an intermediary who could convene all parties at a conference room table to negotiate an agreement to eliminate city funding over time.

Chattanooga is a good model for us. Several years ago, city government there decided to get out of the school funding business. Over several years, they stepped down their funding until it was totally eliminated, and as the final exclamation point on the process, the city school district was eliminated. As required by state law, the county government there – Hamilton County – absorbed the former city district into the existing county district, effectively eliminating onerous double taxation of Chattanooga taxpayers.

Perhaps Governor Bredesen could tell us why we aren't entitled to a similar equity in our local tax burden. While he's at it, he needs to keep uppermost in his mind the fatal flaw in the state's tax structure – the more you make, the less you pay in taxes as a percentage of income. The family earning $25,000 pays 7.0 percent, but the family earning $50,000 doesn't pay more. It pays less – 6.2 percent. A family earning $75,000 pays 6.3 percent, one-third less than the national average; and the $100,000 income family pays 5.9 percent and the family earning $150,000 pays 5.6 percent.

If Governor Bredesen wants to have the credibility that he needs to get Memphis City Council to listen to him, we're sure they'd like to know what he is doing to make the tax burden in Tennessee fairer, because no city in the state is punished more for this flawed tax system than our own.

Dollars And Sense

All that said, here's the real question we'd like the governor to answer.

The State of Tennessee's own data show that between 2003 and 2007, the number of students in Memphis City Schools dropped by 11 percent. Wouldn't he then expect for the budget of Memphis City Schools to have also reduced in this period of time? And, governor, if the student population has dropped 11 percent, why shouldn't the Memphis City Council feel that it could cut $70 million in funding, the equivalent of 7 percent cut in Memphis City Schools' budget.

A down and dirty calculation – and assuming the state's own numbers are right - indicates that this reduction should have reduced Memphis City Schools' costs by $84 million. In other words, even with the Memphis City Council's cut, the district still nets $14 million. But that's not all, in roughly the same period of time, despite the plummeting number of students, the budget for Memphis City Schools increased $146 million.

In other words – and again, if the state's own data are right – while the number of students went down 11 percent, the Memphis City Schools budget went up 19 percent. Maybe the governor can fine tune these numbers, but it certainly makes it worth his time to gather the facts before he condemns Memphis City Council for an act of courage – if not desperation – to do something to equalize the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians.

The Water Is Wide

On this one, our normally inscrutable governor waded into the water without checking its depth.

There are many cross currents in this issue, and if he is not prepared to be a vehicle to develop a plan to end the double taxation of Memphis taxpayers for public education and to address the disincentive that they pay to live inside the city limits of Tennessee's largest city, he has in fact abdicated the high ground in this discussion and forfeited a productive role in resolving this to the public good.

And that's the worst kind of Capitol punishment.


Harvey said...

Amen. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Great post. Bredesen is angry because he doesn't want the state to pick up any of the slack. Amazing how he and other state politicians don't show any passion for Memphis until it might cost them some money. screw him.

Anonymous said...

Amen Amen. Being a relative newcomer to the city, I have never understood the clear antipathy our state government has for this area. No doubt our local legislators could be more effective and professional, but the Gov's position on this issue is astounding.

Anonymous said...

Great post. However, looking at the numbers on the State Department of Education Website I see a reduction in the number of students from 2003 to 2007 as 12.7% based on ADM. The change in the Revenues at MCS during that time was an increase of 24.1%. An increase in revenues of $202,462,019.

Anonymous said...

Among everything else, this shows the need to not only start phasing out Memphis' contribution to the school system but to eliminate the Memphis Special District altogether and merge it into the County System, just like Davison, Knox, Hamilton, and Madison counties have done with positive results.

I am not so naive to realize the resistance. Shelby County parents would protest like they did several years ago when the issue came up (they wanted to form a new county, seceding from Shelby). The good ole boys at the SC School Board would be fearing for their political lives. Even City officials would lose their little spheres of influence.

However, it may produce a better overall educational environment with better efficiency.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 9:41:

Thanks for your calculations. As we admitted, ours were down and dirty and done on the back of a napkin. We appreciate your help.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I hope somebody from the Governor's office reads it.

Anonymous said...

Since the discussion is moving to consolidation consider that Shelby County Schools between 2003 and 2007 had a 5.4% decrease in students (ADM) and a 21.7% increase in revenues.

Cornell said...

Although I'm sure you couldn't care less about winning recognition, this post deserves to be submitted for an award for level-headed analysis and commentary on an important local issue. Too bad we can't count on the editorial page of our daily newspaper for this kind of informed insight. Please keep up the good work.

Midtowner said...

Good post except for the little section about taxes ... I'm an ardent opponent of income taxes ... I think it is the most evil tax in existence.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the enlightenment. This is a really great post and eye I'm angry.

Anonymous said...

WHY is it always somebody else's responsibility to do all the thinking and coming up with solutions?
You have a problem with the schools, you have a problem with thte funding, you have a problem with the structure, you have a problem with the political atmosphere inside and outside Memphis and in the Shelby county area, you don't like how the tax structure is. You think that because someone has made a way to make a little money they should pay more percentage yet there are a finite amount of people that the entire burden can be put across affordaby.

No one wants MCS to do their job and balance the budget as revised. Why not?
No one EVER wants the budget to go down when appropriate. Why not?
Go to all the public schools in Memphis, go to the page showing their stats as to wether they are at risk, failing or passing, look at how they are run with the ever increasing budget and yet they deliver failure on a grand scale wholesale!
No one should ever be held accountable in Memphis, don't dare tell the truth to anyone there.
I could put my kid through a good college for what you pay for each head in Memphis City schools.
Edmund Ford came straight out and said where the graft was hidden. Stop blamestorming and get off your butts and do something and don't leave it all up to me, because lots of heads will roll if you do.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous 11:40,


Anonymous said...

,,,,,,,,am 11:40,,,,
I do agree that the school system should be consolidated yesterday, and I do NOT agree, that this was a "level headed" article/blog it was a bit acid, truthful, but, acid.
I don't sit on the bleachers. I organize, and send letters, heads do roll, policies do change.
The people who are affected the most are motivated to speak out. They are fearful. Teachers are afraid to speak out. It's just too weird.
It's obvious the current and past MCS systems can not or will not control their spending and can't be depended on to have competent, accountable oversight and that MCS has devolved into a spitting match on everything from authority to responsibility for results. The stats back all that up.
I don't blame the governor for being put off by Memphis incessant drama parade of failure, bad stats, lack of positive results, and corruption. I'm sick of it too and I've only lived here a few years.
One thing I've noticed about Memphis is it is one of the most growth-stunted, backwards thinking, thoughts stuffed in a small box, lack of creative thinking, places I've ever visited.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for the kind words. We appreciate them.


As long as there is not an income tax, you will pay more than people making twice your income. But we understand that this is an emotional issue.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:10:

What the heck are you trying to say? It almost sounds like you're not even commenting on this blog. If this post was acid, let's have more of it. Maybe it can burn away the crap and get to the truth.

Anonymous said...

That's because it's an emotional issue for me (and many many others) that the blog and this subject has become skewed away from common sense through the myopia of Memphis thought and politics. The process becoming more important than the outcome or accountability for results, a common theme in Memphis I've noticed.

"And, governor, if the student population has dropped 11 percent, why shouldn't the Memphis City Council feel that it could cut $70 million in funding, the equivalent of 7 percent cut in Memphis City Schools' budget."

I would think (and any fool could see this) it is because Memphis is taking the ENTIRE benefit of the reduction in need and leaving the state no benefit of the reduction. Rather stingy. I don't know that the city has such priority status when it comes to lowering the budget. It may, I don't know, but, I wouldn't think so. It doesn't immediately make sense. It looks like we are continually trying to keep an antagonist stance with the state and we (Memphis) are perpetuating it with actions like these.
As far as I'm concerned that sounds a lot like it isn't fair for only one paying party to see benefit of the reduction in need, especially since 90% of the STATE is not going to Memphis City Schools, yet their money is funding it for the most part.

As far as burning away at the crap, that can only happen when both sides of the disfunction are willing to have truth and from what I se here and elsewhere, neither side is willing to move off their position or story about the truth to see the actual truth that makes sense. It's more of the antagonist system that has been only part of the root that has failed to nourish the system properly.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon 9:54,

While being busy with your rant you seem to have missed a few points. One that failry well jumps off the page is the idea tat the state gets no reduction in funding of MCS due to the decline in students. Not so, since the state funds purely on Average Daily Attendance, it sees fluctuations with every turn of the numbers but does not allow the fluctuation in local funding. Hopefully not any fool would see what you do becuse it is obviously that you are seeing it incorrectly.

You say "The process becoming more important than the outcome or accountability for results." How is that so with this blog? the focus of this entire blog was the manner in which the process does have an impact on the outcome; and further, it is a clear call for accountability.

Finally, you state: "As far as burning away at the crap, that can only happen when both sides of the disfunction are willing to have truth and from what I se here and elsewhere, neither side is willing to move off their position or story about the truth to see the actual truth that makes sense. It's more of the antagonist system that has been only part of the root that has failed to nourish the system properly."

It seems to me that there is much truth in this blog and I am not sure exactly what you mean by "the actual truth that makes sense." Is there some "actual truth" which you are privy to which the rest of us don't have? Becuse the actual truth that I can see makes no sense at all.

It does appear that you are passionate about the problem being addressed here. I fear your passion has not yet been channeled into some positive action. As for the rest of us, since you wish to suggest that we don't do anything about the problem, I would suggest that you really don't know what the folks in this discussion do nor do you know what the blogger has done or is doing. That said, if you can make some the heads involved in the problems at MCS roll, please have at it.

Zippy the giver said...

I, zippy the giver am the anonymous "fool" blogger who bagan @ 11:40.

It was a bit of a rant, I apologize, and I promise to stop that now.

Well, as I said, I don't "know" about the state funding reduction requirements and protocols, and thanks for the correction. I hope it cleared those things up for more than just me reading (who is always willing to look like a fool because I just can't help it & I hope it served someone else too).
As for the process being more important than the outcome, this blog is not in that catagory. Clearly there are good people here looking for solutions, not so much at MCS. There are a few. The process always has an affect on the outcome however it is not "more important", it is "as important", but, you knoew that. the Blog was a call for accountability but, it descended into blamestorming.
The actual truth is the truth without all the emotional attacks, one sided story, sarcasm, and other add-ons. Though there is trith in the blog it is worded antagonistically toward the state. That does not serve.
The whole actual truth is that truth that dictates the solution and includes both problem and solution.
Both sides are still staking territory for position and neither have abandoned that process yet.

I have not made and will not make any assertion that anyone involved in this blog does nothing about the problem, clearly, you are all engaged in finding solution. I make no assertion that I know anything more about any blogger than they blog on this blog.
The reverse is also true.
Personally, I think the governor has not abdicated oral high ground byb ALSO not having facts straight because, the system is so broken that it is about to become extinct by it's own long term self inflicted paralysis. MCS's look the other way as employees spend carelessly policy has destroyed it along with the premise that it is a job welfare program "get in where you fit in" style. I've been there toi resolve problems and I've never heard more excuses or seen more powerless "do nothings with desks" creating the most inappropriate solutions to problems (nothing or worse) in three buildings anywhere.
Cities and populations grow when things are healthy, school systems too. Ours is shrinking, that cause is different. I don't think his statesmanship is appropriate in this atmosphere, I think he has the right idea, it must be struck from the frame and a new one built. There will be a loss of jobs. If I worked for MCS today, I would aggressively be looking for employment elswhere.
I don't believe it has evolved to the state is has on purpose or by some evil plan but it has gone far too far and it is sucking the lifeblood and opportunity out of Memphis, turning out a majority of "system savvy dullards" and angry youth who will not get jobs that pay enough to support their families in Memphis.
Things are changing.

Smart City Consulting said...

zippy the giver and anonymous:

Thanks for the discussion. That's exactly what we seek in these posts.

Zippy, we're not sure we disagree with much that you are saying. In fact, we're not sure where our points of disagreement really are, except for maybe you prefer that we take a different tone.

To both: We know that the funding from state government is based on the number of students, so presumably the funding would go down as number of students go down. That's why we found it so interesting that in fact the city schools budget has done just the opposite. And as we recall, it was the governor who once made the point that quality education isn't about more and more money.

In the end, we just don't think it serves any point for him to provide us with lectures rather than leadership to reach consensus on how to deal with this funding issue in the future.

Thanks again.

Smart City Consulting said...

Oh, Zippy, we forgot: We think that laying responsibility is part of accountability.

Zippy the giver said...

You are right, we do not disagree. 100% correct!
The governor is correct too. What to do when everyone is right about "seemingly" opposing POV.
As far as the Governor's lecture, it's lemons, we are now on a quest to make lemonade, as usual, but, this time we really have to make a great batch from a new recipe that is a proven winner.
Accountability, from greek senators voting tabulation, to stand and be counted, as one who is for or against a cause. It combines responsibility and communication. We become the cause of our future. Responsibility ususally has a negative connotation, blame shame regret, but, in reality it is beautiful. Accountability requires that we recognize to the extent which we are the agent, cause, or, source of our experience. Actively taking responsibility for our reality, it's causality, and the interactions that facilitate support of our wellbeing will include and exclude some other realities and remove the seperation of victimhood, yet, include the ultimate separation where we are creatiung all aspects of our reality. Then we have to be careful to createthings that work instead of concentrating on and being engrossed with "fixing" what is wrong.
To me the Gov.'s lecture is an admission that he doesn't know how to fix it, and though that should be god enough for us to take the hint to create, it is also a kick out of the nest gesture for us to figure it out and get back with a plan.
We can do this. This isnt so much hard as it is confronting and scary. Trudging forward through the fear is whre our success in the matter will be found. Where we have been without fear is where our failure is, was, and awaits.

Anonymous said...

Did your analysis of the budget take into account the changes to the BEP formula from the state that better addresses the funding needs of urban districts? I believe this increased the amount from the state. In addition, and not sure if this was the same pot as the additional BEP funding, but let's remember the cigarette tax increase that went towards education. There has also been additional money over the last few years as pre-K funding has increased for expansion of that effort. So, your funding analysis starts to seem really quick and dirty. Add to this the increase in fuel prices, etc. and an increase even with a declining population is not hard to imagine.

Comparing the data from the other comments about the funding and population changes of both MCS and SCS, we get a better perspective that MCS might not be doing so poorly. Especially, if we take into account the better job MCS does than SCS at supplying additional services both for low-income and high-income people. It's also interesting to note that over those years Nashville had a similar decline in school enrollment along with a similar increase in operating budget. This is why its dangerous to just throw out numbers without context and comparison. Especially numbers as large as the MCS budget, since most people are not used to thinking in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars for anything.

While I agree with the most of the main points of the post. It does none of us any good to simplify the numbers. There is enough of a case for the City Council reducing the contribution of city taxpayers based on an equalization of the County tax base without needing to try to construct some justification based on a simplistic view that the school system simply does not need the money because there are less students.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 1:58:

As we said, the governor needs to get someone to delve into the funding question. As much as we'd love to do it, we don't have the time, and that's why we recommended that he ask the question and get the answer. And if Nashville did the same, it sounds like there is a systemic question that needs to be asked.