Members of the Transition Planning Commission spent Thursday finalizing a draft of a plan to merge the Memphis and Shelby County School systems. The draft plan has a $57 million budget gap and the commission is recommending that the school board pursue additional funds to close that gap. Even so, there are commissioners who think the new system is not adequately funded.
The plan has many elements commissioners say will improve education in Shelby County. There will be expanded Pre-Kindergarten, and more Advanced Placement classes and guidance counselors.
The commissioners found efficiencies merging the central offices, they recommended closing more than 20 schools, and they decided to outsource both janitorial services and bus drivers, but they still did not have enough money to pay for all the things they wanted to do in the classroom. And the commission was not able to reduce class sizes to the levels many members wanted.
“I cannot go into Kroger and say, ‘I really want that steak, but I can only afford hamburger.’ And Kroger isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, well, here, let me give you the steak,” said commission member Katie Stanton.
The commission began its work months ago promising to create a “world-class school system” here in Shelby County. The meeting where the body approved the recommendations of its financial services committee was extremely grim. When the body voted to approve the budget there were members who said that this plan, with this budget, betrayed the promise of creating a world-class system here in Shelby County.
“I think the plan is really good even with the reductions and I think it has the potential to really improve the education systems. I do think that it will not be a world-class system without additional money,” Stanton said.
Commissioner Fred Johnson said balancing the budget would have been morally repugnant.
“We have 10 guiding principals and one of them was, you know, the welfare of our students,” Johnson said, “In good conscience I will not say that it can be done with a balanced budget.”
“Our state, and even our local, has to decide what we want in our public education. And if we do want a world-class school district, then we may have to look at what we contribute to that, however, we made recommendations for modest investments of $15 million which I think will make a huge difference,” said chairwoman Barbara Prescott.
In the coming weeks the commission will present its plan to the state and the school board for approval. The chair of the financial services committee Stanley Cates will meet with Governor Bill Haslam on the June 20 to discuss increased funding for the merged district.