All six of the suburbs outside of Memphis elected municipal school boards, but they are still waiting for a ruling from a judge. Federal judge Hardy Mays is weighing whether or not the state law, which opened the door for municipal schools in Shelby County, is constitutional.
In Memphis and the unincorporated county, voters declined to raise the sales tax a half a cent. If this referendum had passed, half of the money generated—an additional $30 million—would have gone to education. The merged Memphis and Shelby County school district has a $57 million budget gap. The Shelby County Commission is the primary local funder for schools and Mike Ritz is the chairman. Ritz sees only one place to go to make-up that deficit now that the sales tax hike failed at the polls. Ritz said, “The failure to approve the half-cent sales tax in Memphis is going to be, quite probably, a property tax increase on all of Shelby County."
In advance of the vote, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said he has never taken a “no tax policy” when it come to schools, but Luttrell said no additional money should be given to the merged school board until they prove they can make tough choices--like closing schools, privatizing bus drivers and janitorial staff, and selecting a superintendent. Luttrell is relieved the sales tax increase did not pass, but he says he is still worried about the resolve of the merged school board, “They need to aggressively pursue in very short order getting a superintendent in place,” Luttrell said. “We will have a merged school system by next August, how successful and how efficient that merged school system will be, remains to be seen. And right now I am alarmed that we aren't making better progress through the school board."
Luttrell was on the commission that planned the merged district and handed the school board a blueprint for consolidation which expanded Pre-Kindergarten, but didn't pay for it all, and left the board with that $57 million budget gap. Luttrell points out that the blueprint for the merged district does include some contingency plans to close that budget gap, things no one on the planning commission seemed to want to do, but said could be done to save money.
“The $57 million is not a hard figure,” Luttrell said, “there are additional efficiencies that can be realized at the school level.”