Category: Budgeting
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Good morning in Memphis, where the Levitt Shell looks mighty fine and Riverside Drive is too fast, but first hellip;

Were trying something a little different to kick off this week at The 9:01. At todays Shelby County Commission meeting, the long process of Shelby County Schools budgeting for this year comes to a close, with a bit of mystery after a budget and finance committee amendment first approved this years budget, and then reopened it for debate.

On Friday afternoon, I talked to Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson about this years budget process, school closures, how we think about education, shifts in local school choice and more. Heres a sample of that conversation, edited for length:

9:01: On the budget, youd started with an $85 million gap and it had been cut down to $27 million. It looked like the budget had gotten resolved this [past] week, but then you hit a little hiccup going into Mondays vote.

Hopson: After an 8-hour marathon meeting on Wednesday, where the commission truly showed what it looks like when a legislative body works together, we came up with what I thought was a great compromise. It still didnt close all of our gap, but it got us to the point where it was very manageable, and then we left and somebody comes back in and blows it all up. Im still confident that Monday it will get resolved. But we still have work to do.

So what are your expectations?

Certainly, when you have a non-partisan, well-thought-out compromise thats supported by the majority of people in room, it suggests to me that the compromise will move forward and theyll have a final vote on it.

What we tried to do first is make an effort to show wed been really efficient the past few years. We showed that, laid it all out. Notwithstanding those cuts, our student achievement trajectory has gone up. We showed improvement last year in nine of 10 testing categories, outpacing the state in seven of those categories. Our iZone is doing very well. Our graduation rate is up. Our attendance rate is up.

So I think that people were appreciative of the efforts to cut over the years, and also heard us loud and clear that when you have positive momentum, the way to keep that going is not to cut $27 million. Given that and given the comments from everyone, you expect and hope we get to a good place on Monday.

How much of the budgeting tension, in your mind, is about a overall scarcity of resources and how much of it is about valuing the investment in education specifically?

I think most of it is about scarcity of resources. There was a lot of support from the business and philanthropic communities, from so many segments of the community. But the caveat that we heard repeatedly was we want to avoid a tax increase; we have the highest tax rate of anybody in the state. But I think what happened was we were able to show that this funding could be produced without a tax increase [using funds from the wheel tax]. But I understand. I mean, when we were down there, the deputy jailers wanted an increase. The sheriff wants an increase. The DA wants an increase, so theres tension around the county with everyone wanting more. The property tax collections are up, so that creates a little bit more in the pie, but, I think because the wheel tax was on the table, it took us out of competition mode with some of the others that were asking for increases.

You announced two school closures, but theres still a lot of under-enrollment across the district. Is there a sense that some would like the district to speed up finding efficiencies in those areas?

I think certainly you have a few county commissioners who have made that their clarion call, to close schools. The reality is that weve got 27,000 more seats than kids, so weve got to right-size the district. I think theres a misconception about the kinds of savings you get from closing schools, which is why I think we should be closing schools not for savings but rather to improve the quality of the education. If weve got three schools within a two-mile radius and all of them are failing or underutilized, then I think those three schools could fold into two schools or one school and we can invest additional resources, so the kids can have the kind of support and extracurricular activities that they wouldnt [otherwise] be able to get.

What weve found is the relative savings, when you compare to the heartache in a community, is not that great. You probably save around $400,000 a school. Oftentimes, you increase your transportation costs, because those kids cant walk to school. Now they have to be bused somewhere. So I think the focus of our lens has to be on school quality. Ive been telling the board since December that we intend to bring an aggressive plan in September that looks at a way to address those 27,000 seats. So you could be talking about anywhere from 18 to 25 schools over a three or four-year period. And I think that thats in the works and its going to happen, at my recommendation to the board. Its not really prodded by anyone at the County Commission.

I think that, you know, oftentimes we have these discussions, and people will use that in some instances as a pretext for not wanting to adequately fund the schools.

Is there a challenge, not in a legislative context, but in a community context, in getting people to think of education in terms of investment rather than expense?

Absolutely. We start from a negative place, because there are people who still have a sour taste in their mouth from the merger. And then there are so many people who had a negative view of the former Memphis City Schools. So oftentimes you have to get past so many hurdles that are caused by preconceived notions. They say, there they go asking for money again, not realizing the number of cuts weve made in an attempt to be more efficient. But we need to shift the conversation toward investing in students. Someone made the statement at the County Commission meeting that we spend, as a county, $107 a day on an inmate and $16 a day per student. And if you know that youre going to have to spend the money one way or another, in many respects its more efficient and a better investment on the front end than talking about housing somebody in the criminal justice system.

Jennifer Pignolet has a story this weekend about shifting school options and choices in Midtown. I live in the general Midtown area and have two kids in public schools and I sense, anecdotally, that theres a shift happening back to public schools among people who might have gone the private route before. Do you sense this?

Let me put my plug in first. I have a rising fourth grader and a rising second grader that go to Idlewild. Having spent time in Idlewild, Maxine Smith, Snowden, Bellevue, Peabody, I dont think that for the overall educational experience, you can get a better education in private schools. And youre already paying for it as a taxpayer. Midtown embodies diversity, everything we want Memphis to be. When my daughter started Idlewild kindergarten four years ago, there was space there. Now theyve got a waiting list. Same thing with Peabody. Maxine Smith, where people are lined up out here for the optional transfer process, ninety percent were for Maxine Smith. I think if youre going to have a great community, its got to start with great schools. I think weve done a really good job in terms of Midtown, but I think the push needs to be, how do you have the same great school options in Frayser and South Memphis and North Memphis too?

There are some instances where if a parent feels like they wont get the same kind of opportunity, thats one thing. But if we can show you, heres a great school thats going to be similar or better than the options youre paying $12, $15, $18 thousand dollars for now, I think thats got to give people something to think about.

If youre bringing more taxpayers, more middle-class people, into the school system, is there a wider value there in terms of shifting that question about thinking about school funding in terms of investment vs. expense, and does that start to impact the wider community conversation?

Id have to think so. For a parent who chooses to send their child to private school, theyre not going to be as invested in the funding debate as other people would be. Thats the other part of strong schools, strong communities. Because youve got very involved parents who do things to supplement the school experience too. Just imagine, as opposed to paying $15 grand, youre able to free that up to save for college, but then also put two or three grand back into your school.

Two Great Places: OK, so I spent a lot of my weekend being a homebody: Repairing some rotting wood on my deck, perfecting my cast-iron steak technique and watching TV (NBA Finals Game Seven + Game of Thrones Battle of the Bastards episode? Yes, please.). But I did get out a little bit, and let me give praise here to two great public places that make Memphis better: On Friday night, after a West Tennessee catfish excursion (more on this later), we stopped off at the Collierville town squareon the way home for ice cream and it remains, as ever, pretty as a peach. The square was full of people, in small groups, having country/bluegrass sing-and-play-alongs, surrounding by listeners, strolling families, dogs. Shoutout to the one group doing a spirited version of Merle Haggards Swinging Doors.

On Saturday night, we made a belated first trip to the Levitt Shell (singer-songwriter Frazey Ford with some Hi Rhythm help) after its big renovations. Summer travels and other commitments had kept us away until this weekend, and, well, one of Memphis very best public spaces is even better. Every change: Lighting, elevated party/gathering spaces, new bathrooms, new sidewalk down one side, and especially a dedicated food truck/vending area is smartly conceived, add to the spaces user-friendliness without detracting from its casual charm. Well done.

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