Wed July 27, 2011
Circumspect Deal To Get Memphis Schools Open On Time
By Eleanor Boudreau
Memphis, TN – Memphis parents are breathing a circumspect sigh of relief because it looks like school will start, as scheduled, August 8th. The anxiety began a week ago when the school board voted not to open schools until the city council handed over 55 million dollars--the city council said it couldn't pay because a payment that size would tank the city's bond rating and both sides seemed deadlocked.
Karen McGee has three children and two grandchildren enrolled in Memphis City Schools. She thought about what to do with her kids if school didn't open on time.
"Private schools that do scholarships," McGee said. "I don't want to go that route, but I have to go to work. And they have to go to school." But, McGee admits, she probably wouldn't have had time to enroll her kids in private school given the abruptness of the decision by the school board.
McGee was so concerned she took Tuesday night off work as a security guard to speak to the school board at a special meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to revisit the question of whether or not school would open on time. When McGee got to the podium she chastised the school board for setting a bad example for her kids.
"If you have children that are watching us politic with their education--I mean, do you think they are going to be really interested in education, if it's a joke to us?" McGee asked.
The school board voted to reinstate the school calendar and open schools August 8th, but despite McGee's chastening, the school board was as unrepentant and unapologetic as they could be, while still reversing their earlier decision. Board president Martavius Jones said, "This wasn't a little boy crying wolf."
Jones reiterated that the city owes its schools money from the past three years, that the city has flouted a court order to pay, and that the outstanding debt made the board nervous the city would not pay all of what it owes this year.
"We've had to spend our savings account," Jones said. "We've had no funds to replenish that savings account."
Board member Kenneth Whalum said the school board needs the money it gets from the city to fund important programs.
"If we don't get the money we gonna have to cut out athletics, gotta cut out arts, gotta cut out CLUE. Gotta cut out bands, gotta cut out choir," Whalum said. "If we gotta cut out all that, then all we'll be is a prison-system baby-sitting service," he concluded.
The board voted to start school on time under a few conditions. The board wants the city council to approve their budget, to meet its court-mandated maintenance of effort requirement for the upcoming year, and to follow a payment schedule with the first big payment of 12 million dollars coming August 5th, three days before the start of school. If the city council fails to do any of those things school may still be delayed.
And the mistrust that got us into this predicament remains. Whalum said, "I don't think they're going to do it. They've proven over and over again that they don't care anything about the court order or these children either."
Watching the proceedings, McGee was less than reassured. "It's a game that they are playing, and it's not fair to our children," she said.
The ball is now in the city council's court. The council meets August 2nd.