Sunday, March 15, 2009

Single Source Funding May Follow Single-Minded Dedication

After 20 years of talking about it, it’s likely that there will soon be a single source funding plan for public education.

It’s a landmark moment for two reasons.

It is the first substantive action to inject fairness into a tax structure that punishes Memphians.

Equally important, it is a testament to the benefits of new leadership as exemplified by Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter – who began the discussion about changes in school funding with his one-man crusade – and Chair Deidre Malone – who refused to accept predictions of failure when she convened her process to resolve the school funding question once and for all.

The New Guard

We’ve never embraced term limits for a variety of reasons, but there’s no denying that this breakthrough is fueled by the new energy, the new ideas and the new people on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine that this could have happened with the former board of commissioners, which seemed at the end more focused on longevity than leading edge thinking.

This new group – like the revamped Memphis City Council – demonstrates convincingly that long-time elected officials who so often adopt the attitude that they’ve seen everything before and that nothing can be done to change things sometimes just need to get out of the way.

So often, while the old guard is being nabobs of negativity, our city slowly sinks under the weight of its troubling challenges. In this way, the new momentum for change could not come at a better time, because there’s no question that we have to shake up the status quo or our city will fall off a cliff.

That’s exactly what the special ad hoc committee on school funding has been doing. As it began its work, it was told that it couldn’t be done. After all, there had been repeated efforts to find a solution over the past 20 years and every time the end result was failure.

On The Verge

And yet, today, they stand on the verge of success. It is interesting to note that the past failed efforts were always begun by mayors, but this time around, it was commissioners and City Council members who decided to see if they could do anything about the double taxation that Memphians pay for public education.

This seems more and more to be accepted as a major public policy challenge in our community. When the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was presented with a variety of cost-cutting measures by the Wharton Administration, Commissioner Henri Brooks said they didn’t address the real problem of tax equity.

She was precisely right, and we’re encouraged by the fact that the interest in getting this right crosses all political, racial and geographic lines. In this way, perhaps, the most important outcome of the process may not be single source funding itself.

A draft of the plan said: “Shelby County Government is the logical local funding source for both the Memphis City Schools system and the Shelby County schools system. Having the County as the local single-source equalizes the tax burden, recognizes that every child in Shelby County has equal value and simplifies the local funding model. It can also avoid protracted and counterproductive litigation to determine the funding responsibilities of the City of Memphis.”

The First Cut Is The Hardest

This shift in school funding responsible would be transitioned from city government to county government over a three-year period. Best of all, the proposal contains a provision that ties the cut in funding to a cut in the Memphis property tax rate.

We learned last year that it’s hard to pass up the lure of new money. Although City Council courageously slashed funding for Memphis City Schools, it did not convert the entire amount into the tax cut that is needed if Memphis is to have a level playing field with suburban cities.

In this way, single source funding, or health department funding, or other services in which city taxpayers are paying twice isn’t just about making county government responsible. In truth, the end game has to be a reduction in the city tax rate so that this disincentive for Memphians to stay here is removed.

Several inducements should encourage the two school districts to cooperate in the process, chiefly that school funding will be tied to the property tax rather than being a fixed annual funding amount. To ensure that the school districts do not receive windfalls from surpluses in strong economic times as has taken place in the past.

Game Changers

An encouraging development in school accountability is that if county government becomes the only source for public education, both school districts must submit to the same budgetary oversight. This has not been the case in the past regarding Memphis City Schools.

As part of the shared agreement, all the parties – city government, county government, city school district and county school district – will pursue a lawsuit against state government about the level of funding for Shelby County. This follows up extensive research by Commissioner Mike Ritz that showed that county government has been shortchanged by almost $20 million a year. Finally, the parties to the agreement will agree to seek an amendment to Tennessee state law that requires for schools to be merged if the governments are.

At this point, we are told that the ad hoc committee on education funding is advancing two options for single source funding, apparently in response for the school districts’ interest in having taxing authority. While there appears to be little support among the public for giving yet another elected group the authority to tax them, all of us should be willing to engage in a public discussion of the idea.

It’s beginning to look like single source funding might actually take form about the 10th anniversary of the process inspired by local business leader Russell Gwatney, who became an expert in the arcania of school funding in his campaign for rational funding for better schools.

Knock On Wood

The ad hoc committee report embraced some of Mr. Gwatney’s concepts, and that’s good news. But the truth is that despite Chamber of Commerce and business support a decade ago, the campaign derailed, chiefly because of the lack of political will needed to change things.

That, most of all, is what makes the current process so impressive. We hope that it is just the first big step in a continuing journey toward tax equity so that finally Memphis will have a fair and logical tax structure.


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