In an escalating political battle, the school board in Memphis, Tenn., is threatening to delay the start of school year until the City Council forks over $55 million in tax revenue earmarked for education.
By an 8-1 vote, the board decided Tuesday to postpone the start of the school year, currently scheduled for Aug. 8, until the City Council approves the Memphis City Schools budget for fiscal 2012 and deposits the money in the district’s account.
“It would be imprudent to start schools and have to shut down in October, November or December,” school board President Martavius Jones told msnbc.com on Wednesday. “… And based on the city’s prior behavior, we have not been able to count on a reliable revenue stream.”
Jones was referring to a bitter ongoing funding dispute with the City Council dating to 2008, when the council approved a property tax cut and cut $57 million from the school system’s annual budget. The school board sued and won a settlement for the amount, but the cash-strapped city has not yet repaid the shortfall.
In total, the city now owes $151 million to the school district, including $78 million for the upcoming school year, and the board wants assurances it will get the latter amount before beginning classes, Jones said.
Mayor A. C. Wharton has said the money has been set aside but cannot legally be deposited into the school board’s accounts until the City Council approves the district’s budget. An emergency meeting of the council’s Education Committee was scheduled for Tuesday to begin that process.
Meanwhile, City Council President Myron Lowery accused the school board of political grandstanding, noting that the city funds account for only 10 percent of the district’s annual budget.
“There is no reason for the board to pull the trigger because they don’t have 10 percent of their money in hand,” he said in a telephone interview. “… Right now this seems to be a power play by a Board of Education that will soon be out of business.”
Lowery was referring to the fact that the Memphis City Schools has sought to legally dissolve itself in 2013 and be absorbed by the smaller suburban Shelby County Schools system. The Shelby County district went to court to attempt to block the move and the move is currently in limbo as a federal court decides the issue.
The latest dispute adds even more uncertainty to the equation, said Staci Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Memphis City Schools.
"It’s a mess, it's chaos," she said. "And it’s unfortunate because at the end of the day, it’s children and their families that are being placed in the middle of all this."