Memphis City Council Settles School Funding Vote Words (TN)
July 21, 2010
City Council members decided Tuesday how to ask Memphis voters whether they want the city to pay for school funding.
In six weeks, the City Council will vote on a resolution to put on the Nov. 2 ballot, now that the council’s education committee has studied the wording for the question.
The query voters are likely to see will be simple, said City Council attorney Allan Wade: "Do you want to provide mandatory funding (for schools) in the future?"
"We will know then if we are locked in or locked out," he said, assuring the council committee members that the city will always have the option of "gratuitously" funding the district but will not be required to perpetuate that funding.
If city taxpayers say they do not want to fund the city schools, Wade says the portion of county taxes paid to cover both the city and county schools would gradually incre ase as county taxpayers become the sole supporter of local public education.
Council member Shea Flinn said he expects the council will approve the referendum: "It is always tough to vote against giving the public a chance to speak."
School board attorney Dorsey Hopson has called the proposed referendum "nothing more than an expensive, taxpayer-funded opinion poll."
The question of mandatory city funding of schools has been the subject of rancorous discord since 2008 when the council reduced its contribution to the Memphis City Schools by $57 million.
The school district sued for the funds; two courts have ruled in its favor. The city is appealing the case to the state Supreme Court.
If the Supreme Court rules against the city or declines to hear the appeal, the city would be forced to raise $57 million for a one-time payment to the school district, in addition to its ongoing payments.
If the court upholds the decision, the proposed referendum "will be of no legal consequence," said Hopson.
Wade argues that Memphis City Schools are the rare example of a special school district without authority to raise taxes to support itself.
"The General Assembly has created a neutered animal," Wade said. "(MCS officials) claim we are their taxing authority."
The city can’t ask voters to change the arrangement.
"But we do govern our taxing authority, so we are going to put that on the ballot," Wade said.
Currently, a city resident who owns a home valued at $100,000 pays $521.70 in taxes for public schools. Non-city residents pay $475 on the same valuation.
The Memphis Ministerial Association, a vocal support group behind schools Supt. Kriner Cash, will push for a yes vote on the referendum.
"When we talk about taxing or greater tax burden, I look at it as an investment," said Rev. Dwight Montgomery, a member and head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference here.
"The children of our community are important to us," he said, "and therefore whatever needs to be done to make sure necessary funding is provided, we support that."