Tuesday, July 21, 2009
School Districts Need Education In Fair Taxes
Memphians are the only people in a major Tennessee city who pay twice for their public schools.
Memphians are the only people in Shelby County who pay twice for their public schools.
And apparently both school districts want to keep it that way.
Out Of The Closet
We’ve learned to expect the worst anytime Shelby County Schools board chair David Picker opens his mouth, but the debate on single source funding seems to have finally forced him out of the closet.
There’s no question left that he’s about the kids. He’s clearly about political advantage and pandering. Anything that seems to take a broader view than the one by the county district’s all-white school board is regularly rejected out of hand. Single source funding now joins consolidation, charter schools, student rights and separation of church and state.
Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash appears to be operating under the only game plan that seems to make sense to him: he’s just trying to keep all his options open. However, that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that the traditional funding formula is unfair to Memphians and inequitable from any angle you choose to look at it.
It appears likely that in time single source funding by Shelby County Government – the government constitutionally obligated to provide public education in conjunction with state government – will be the law of the land here. But it won’t come without some angst by Memphis City Schools and the typical gnashing of teeth by Shelby County Schools, but it is coming nevertheless.
Upside Down Tax Structure
And it’s high time. School expenditures have risen faster than the rest of government and much more than the departments controlled by the mayors. Schools generally have made few sacrifices like the rest of local government departments to cope with budgetary crises. School funding has increased dramatically while student enrollment at city schools declined and student enrollment at county schools flat-lined.
We’ve made no secret – in fact, you’re probably tired of us saying it – that we admire the Memphis City Council for drawing a line in the sand and forcing this issue. Otherwise, we’d still be hearing what we’ve heard for the past 20 years – a promise that city and county will get around to a more equitable funding system soon.
We’ve made no secret that we were pleased by the Council’s decision to cut $57 million and we were then disappointed that it plowed 78% of it back into the general city budget. It was a historic chance to do something about leveling the playing field for Memphis taxpayers, but in addition, had it been done, the Council would be standing on stronger political ground right now.
That said, we still stand on their side of this argument. You’ve heard our concerns often, so we won’t repeat them here, but suffice it to say: the less you earn in Memphis, the greater percentage of your salary that you pay in taxes. And, with the hollowing out of the middle class in our city, we have a more and more polarized tax base that will pay more and more for less and less in public services.
The Wrong #1
We’ve cited all the statistics before, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll quote a new one: Of 35 major metros in the U.S., Memphis is #1 in the total annual government revenue as a per cent of total personal income.
That’s why it is in everyone’s enlightened self-interest that single source funding proposal recommended by the special committee on school funding is approved and enacted. Public education is a countywide service, and because of it, its cost should be born by the county tax base.
Enter Mr. Pickler stage right. Far right.
In engaging in his predictable screed against the proposal for fair funding, he all but acknowledged that county taxpayers outside Memphis are getting a sweet deal in their tax responsibilities. He said single source funding is merely a way to shift the costs of schools to county residents and drive up their tax rate.
Birchers At The Board
Well, yes, it is. It’s shifting the funding to the government that should be paying for them…just like they do for all those schools outside Memphis. And when it is done, we’ll be like every other large county in Tennessee. Only in the parallel universe inhabited by Mr. Pickler is this some sinister plot, and we’re sure that, as usual, he’s looking under his bed for communists, whoops, we mean consolidationists.
They’re everywhere, and proving that paranoia is all-consuming, he sees consolidation in every effort to bring logic and good sense to educational funding although Mayor A C Wharton, Memphis City Council Chair Myron Lowery and Shelby County Board of Commissioner Chair Deidre Malone have said in their listening tour that they do not support merger of city and county school districts.
We agree with them, largely because we reject the notion that we can only improve our predominately African-American city school district by taking in the predominately white county school district. The truth is that the city schools aren’t as bad as people think and the county schools aren’t as good as they think.
If you are looking for educational innovation and the open minds needed for school reform in this community, look to Memphis City Schools, not Shelby County Schools. We don’t think a merger with county schools accomplishes anything but takes our eye off the ball about the education of the kids that matter most – the 103,000 students in city classrooms.
Against Fair Play
But back to Mr. Pickler’s pickle. What offends him most in making taxes equitable is that county taxes will go up and city taxes will go down. In a lame attempt to buttress his position, he issued a “position paper” that is characterized by its innuendoes and attempts at political cleverness.
But here’s the real truth: if Shelby County Schools is not happy with the final recommendation of this special committee, it is because the petulant Mr. Pickler picked up his toys and went home whenever members of the committee didn’t bend to his tantrums.
Never someone to rely on persuasion and honest debate, he was given special opportunities to present the case for his position, but in the end, his objective wasn’t to engage in collaboration but combat.
His thinly-veiled racist comments have finally worn thin. We keep waiting – impatiently – for our local version of Special Counsel for the Army Joseph N. Welch who famously said to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the midst of his communist witch hunt of the Fifties: “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Sadly, we know the answer when it comes to Mr. Pickler, but we have more confidence in people living outside Memphis than he does. We think they understand that it’s unfair that they only pay once for their schools. We think the residents of Germantown know in their hearts that there’s no justification for them only paying county taxes for their schools while their city government pays nothing.
Protecting Their Turf
In response to Mr. Pickler’s call for opposition, Collierville Alderman Tom Allen also admitted that his citizens get preferential treatment. “If they see that the tax rate in Shelby County goes up that much…we’ll be in the same situation Memphis is in: you’ll see flight, people leaving Shelby County,” he opined.
In other words, it’s fine for Collierville to shove its responsibility to Memphians and to kill our urban core as long as their vision of suburban bliss is protected and given preference. As we’ve asked for years, if these town officials are so committed to education, why don’t they do what Memphis has done for decades – appropriate some of their city revenues for schools.
Mr. Pickler and his cronies reflexively stoke the fires of divisiveness by pointing out that no representations of the suburban towns were on the special committee. Of course, that made perfect sense, since only the people who have skin in the game deserved a place at the table.
For 25 years, the county school board has pandered to the town mayors while ignoring the concerns and desires of their major funding source – Shelby County Government. That they have no groundswell of support at this point is the direct result of an attitude of arrogance toward county mayors and commissioners as far back as the 1980s and as recently as a few weeks ago.
Divisiveness As Political Strategy
That’s why in the midst of this important discussion, county school officials have done nothing to put this into the context of children and education. Rather, they pose it in terms of prejudice toward the city and in terms of “we versus they” politics. It’s a sad commentary on the maturity of the elected leaders of our county schools, and most of all, we worry about those poor county students who have no role models to emulate.
Back to Memphis City Schools, Superintendent Cash must be wondering these days if he’s being sabotaged by members of his own team. The debacle about charter schools and the district’s failure to follow the letter of the law that it’s supposed to enforce is the latest embarrassment.
We assume that Superintendent Cash is just as dismayed as we are, because surely he relied on his staff to get this right. Once again, it wasn’t a close call but a miss by a mile as district officials treated themselves as having special privileges.
Meanwhile, rumblings out of the district these days indicate how difficult it will be to change the culture of Memphis City Schools. In the last week of school, there were schools where teachers were told by principals to make sure no one was failed, and it is likely that a controversy involving the transportation department will rival the nutrition center scandal.