Thursday, February 19, 2009

City Council Still Right On School Funding

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner cash says: “Arguing over who should fund schools is not good for children.”


Editorial writers say Memphis City Council acted rashly and as a result, it left the city schools in a precarious financial position.

Wrong again.

To the superintendent, we can only say that debating who should fund schools is precisely the right argument for this community to be having, because finally, it gets the focus where it belongs – on equitable taxes for Memphians.

To editorial writers, we can only say that City Council acted courageously, and because of them, we are finally, after 30 years of talk, talk, and more talk, having the right discussion. More to the point, precisely because of the gutsy members of the City Council, the first serious, actionable plan for single source funding of schools is taking shape and is likely to yield real results.

Fairness For The Future

Before school supporters narrowly define this as a “children are our future” rhetorical debate, let’s remember that this is about something even more fundamental. It’s about tax fairness and fair play.

No one is suggesting that it’s not in all of our best interests – not to mention our common humanity – to pay for the education of our children. It does in fact take a village and we all need to be villagers in that pursuit.

But the village doesn’t only have children. It has elderly people, especially the significant percentage here who live in poverty, it needs an economy that doesn’t play down to our low skill levels but helps to improve them, and it’s about neighborhoods that are connected, walkable and served by high-quality public transit.

In other words, the village is about more than one special interest or one group of people. It’s about serving the interests and needs of all of them and in ways that keeps one group from disproportionately paying the price for every one else or that provides fair play for all needs of the group.

Lewis Carroll Financing

As for us, we think single source funding of schools would be a major step in eliminating the “we versus they” approach that grips too many issues in our village. In other words, it’s time for our village not to be Memphis or Germantown or Bartlett. It’s time for our village to be all of Shelby County, a place with one future, one voice and one commitment to educating our children (even though 75% of us do not have children in school).

O.K., we’ve belabored the village analogy to the breaking point, but what we are suggesting is that there is no logical argument to justify why Memphians have to pay twice for public education while every one else in Shelby County pays once.

Let’s say it again just to make sure every one gets it. No property tax money from the City of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Millington and Arlington go to fund schools. Meanwhile, Memphians not only pay for schools in their county property tax bill, but they pay for it again with their city taxes. No one else in this county does that – or has ever done that – except Memphians.

Meanwhile, those same small cities use their lower tax rates and their schools as lures to pull people out of Memphis. And Memphians are forced to help make it possible. Or put another way, Memphians not only pay twice for schools, but they are being forced to participate in a tax structure that encourages people to move out of their city, which in turn exacerbates the tax burden on them.

It’s enough to make Alice feel that the Mad Hatter made good sense.

Can You Spell F-A-I-R?

The questions that every one, particularly Superintendent Cash and the ever-naïve School Commissioner Jeff Warren, should answer are these: What is fair about Memphians paying twice for public services that every one else gets with one tax payment? What is fair about those whose median incomes are less to pay twice for public services when those who make more pay once?

Even a sixth grade math student can tell that it doesn’t add up. Even a sixth grade spelling student knows how to spell U-N-F-A-I-R.

In this way, Shelby County Chancellor Kenny Armstrong’s ruling that City of Memphis cannot reduce its funding to schools was not only unexpected by most observers, but if allowed to stand, it creates a tax disparity that is nothing less than quicksand for Memphis as it tries to become a city of choice to middle-class families and young families.

Perhaps, Memphians will be forced by the courts to pay twice for schools forever, but let’s make no mistake about what the consequences would be. It will create a future where fewer and fewer taxpayers will pay higher and higher taxes for schools and other services in a city more and more economically polarized.

Appealing For Fairness

Hopefully, appellate courts will give Memphis a ruling that won’t dramatically limit Memphis’ ability to succeed. In point of fact, Chancellor Armstrong’s ruling is likely to accelerate the troubling trajectory of our city. Chancery Court has always been the court where public opinion and local political dynamics seems to hold sway, so a favorable ruling on appeal for City of Memphis is not only justifiable but a necessity.

The irony of all this gnashing of teeth is that the Memphis City Schools’ operating budget is as large – if not larger – than City of Memphis. It’s always strange at the double standard in the intergovernmental family. Every issue involving schools is destined to take on the dimensions of a calamitous disaster, while any other part of government has its services treated as dispensable and always ripe for cuts.

So, it’s no surprise that some predict educational disaster if $57.4 million is cut from Memphis City Schools' almost $1 billion budget.

The notion – legal or logical – that Memphis is mandated to simply continue to pay the money to city schools as its tax base constricts, as consumption taxes dry up and more middle-income families leave is not just absurd public finance. It’s absurd law.

Being Punished Bad For Being Good

It paints a scenario in which Memphians – with their array of social and human service needs – see those programs shrink because of the stranglehold of school funding as a result of a state mandate.

It wasn’t too many years ago that City of Memphis provided significantly less funding for schools. Also, there was a widely held opinion – in both city and county mayors’ offices and in both city and county legal departments – that Memphis’ funding was discretionary. It could stop it whenever it liked, and as a result, City of Memphis increased school funding to higher and higher levels, but rather than getting a thank you note from city schools, they instead get served with a lawsuit.

It makes no sense (and surely there ought to be some layer of good sense in the law) that local taxpayers, through a Memphis City Council courageous enough to tackle this tax equity problem head-on, lose all rights to determine its priorities, its ability to pay for services and to align priorities to funding and ultimately, to have the ultimate flexibility to move around money in its budgets in times of crisis.

Here’s the problem: because of our state’s regressive tax structure and our anomalous bulge in children, all public services are fighting over a pie whose size is fixed and so every agency feels compelled to fight for its share. It’s a system destined to breed conflict and produce political dogfights over the crumbs falling off the table.

Leveling The Playing Field

As a result, we appreciate Memphis City Schools’ feeling that it has to fight for its share, but what could happen if its leaders told state government that it agrees with City of Memphis and that tax fairness to Memphians is of paramount importance. It’s a dream that will never occur, but at the least, school officials should become vehicles for a new understanding that education is not a municipal service. If it were otherwise, all other cities in Shelby County would be paying for schools, too.

It seems to us that rather than complicating the issue of tax equity with testy negotiations and discussions about global issues, couldn’t we just start with a simple premise: City of Memphis should fund the same services that the other towns do. It should not subsidize services outside of Memphis and its taxpayers should never pay twice for the same public service.

The state law that forbids local government from reducing its previous year’s school funding may sound on the surface like a commitment to kids, but in the end, it’s a prescription that erodes the kind of self-determination that every government deserves. After all, the law would require government to keep the same level of funding even as enrollment drops.

Said more precisely, Chancellor Armstrong is saying that despite the declining enrollment at Memphis City Schools, Memphians should never have the option of reducing its funding even if there are fewer students. In the end, perhaps all of us should be paying more for our schools, but neither district has made a convincing case that more money will cure what ails the two districts where students in both underperform.



You would think that if someone was double billed by a governmental entity that it would be illegal and prosecutable offense.
What is "the argument that it is not" that seems to get the county off the hook every time?
I'd love to hear the other side's POV on this one that makes it fair, but, I haven't heard a pep. Funny, when one camp is obviously in the right and the one in the wrong present no valid argument, usually the right wins, why not here?

packrat said...

Surrender the city's charter. make the county run the whole show.

bob said...

I live in the city and pay these double taxes (and have no children). Tax fairness is all well and good, but that's not the main reason for changing. I think there should be a single, excellent county-wide school syatem, with one board of education, and one county-wide tax to pay for it. Everybody's skin ought to be in the same game, so to speak. That would be a good start toward breaking down the barriers that are killing greater Memphis.

And maybe, while we're at it, we ought to have a good and honest conversation about race. I think somebody was talking about that a few hours ago.

This comment has been removed by the author.

I suppose you also heard WHY no one is having that conversation about race.
Oversensitivity and indignance, whether earned or not, is keeping that conversation from being had.

Everyone will have to give up their staked out positions and give up being self righteous first, but, you hit the nail on the head alright.

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