Sunday, April 26, 2009

Memphis School Funding Flunks Tax Fairness Test

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton sent a stern note last week to the Memphis City Council that said its members need to restore full funding for Memphis City Schools.

It prompted memories here of the late Jesse Turner Sr., the civil rights leader and former long-time chairman of the budget committee for Shelby County’s legislative body. When presented once with a directive about the budget by a county mayor, he responded calmly: “I appreciate your opinion. That’s what you have – an opinion. What I have is a vote.”

It’s a fact of life that’s always been lost to some extent on the news media, which hang on every word of mayors and their budget recommendations as if it’s the administrative branch that determines public budgets.

The truth is that it’s the 13 members of Memphis City Council who will make the final decision. They have the responsibility, not to mention the authority, to set the final budget and the tax rate.

Dollars And Sense

We respect the mayor’s opinion about school funding. As the former superintendent of Memphis City Schools, Mayor Herenton, according to a political adviser, is too passionate about schools to remain silent on the issue of school funding. They said that it was a personal motivation that led him to chastise the Council in a letter to City Council Myron Lowery.

It seems likely that the Memphis City Council will return the favor, asking the mayor for his administration’s recommendations on how to include the school funding in the city budget – are cuts in other city departmental budgets recommended to offset the increase for schools or is the recommendation for a tax increase to produce money for schools.

More than a couple of City Council members think that the mayor may have been trying to paint them into a corner, but think that he instead shot himself in the foot (to mix metaphors). They said that if he were serious about funding schools, he would have put the money in the proposed budget that he presented to Council last week along with the bombshell that he’s planning to run for Congress.

In the words of one Councilman, “he didn’t present a balanced budget at all if he truly believes that schools should be funded at previous levels.”

Politics And More Politics

From their side, however, key finance officials assumed that if they had included the school funding, City Council would “grandstand and cut it like they were the only ones who know how to cut budgets.” Regardless of the rationale on each side, some people believe that it’s created a game of political chicken.

And yet, it’s just as likely, based on early reports from the Council, that its members may opt to ignore Mayor Herenton’s letter altogether, recognizing that final decisions on the city budget are theirs, not the administration’s. One Council member also pointed out that the mayor had similar opinions last year, but had no real influence on the City Council budget decisions.

As superintendent, Mayor Herenton was a rising star and highly regarded for top school jobs from Atlanta to New York City. So, it’s no wonder he has a strong feeling about the city’s funding of schools. We just happen to disagree with him.

As we’ve said before, tax fairness affects every Memphian, and if any one is harboring the delusion that our city can compete for new jobs, new talent and new business investment as higher and higher taxes are paid by fewer and fewer people, they are ignoring reality.


That is exactly what current trends foretell. Unless we are able to bring some sanity to our current tax system – which punishes Memphis tax base, which is losing middle-income families faster and leaving a polarized city to pay for the increasing costs of the vortex of social problems that stem from our high poverty rate.

It’s a vicious cycle. The high rate of poverty begets a high drop-out rate which begets a high level of people out of the job market which begets the high rate of crime which begets the high abandonment of the city which begets higher tax rates which begets higher risk to the entire region.

In that way, a fair tax rate for Memphians isn’t just the city’s concern. It better be all of ours. In the end, all of us are at risk, regardless of where we live and how much we earn and how immune we think we are from the economic repercussions of Memphis’ collapse.

Because of this, Memphis City Council was not only right when it tried to bring some sanity to the local tax burden. They were also courageous.

Council Courage

After all, this community talked 25 years about placing all school funding where it belongs – on Shelby County’s larger tax base. We’ve been talking for way too long about making the Memphis tax burden more rational, and despite all the talk, nothing changed.

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. The village is Shelby County, not two villages, one in Memphis and another in Shelby County.

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.

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.

Wanted: Logical Laws

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 if enrollment collapsed.

Let’s say this one more time to make sure every one gets it. No property tax money from the budgets of 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.


Anonymous said...

and you see a problem with that, I suppose?

Anonymous said...

great piece!

three questions:

1. what will consolidation do to address the root cause issues you so eloquently articulate here?

2. is anyone in a county leadership position planning to also address this clear equity issues?

3. why are we spending so much time talking about so-called "single source" funding? we are supposed to already have a single source: the county, as the administrative unit of the STATE.

thank you.


william said...

Right! The only way to get to single source funding and level the tax burden any time soon, is for the city to stop funding the schools. That will force the county to do so because state law requires it. It will also force leaders like Commissioner Whalum to consider real change. Changes that can deliver better education for less with a more entrepreneurial approach e.g. store front schools, internet based education, and more charter schools. It is really possible to do more with less if stake holders have more freedom, choice and, at the same time, responsibility.

One of the greatest profiles in courage in recent years has been the attempt of the Memphis City Council to equalize the school funding burden. Those involved in the Memphis City system must understand that they will destroy the tax base and empty the city if they continue to operate a school system that is so much more expensive and not as effective as the neighboring Shelby County School system. I am proud of Memphis and it's many virtues. But, many people think saving thousands of dollars a year while still having access to those amenities is such a deal that they will leave at increasing rates in direct proportion to the disparity.

Cryliberty Bill

Anonymous said...

thanks for this great information


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