(Memphis, TN) Shelby County board commissioners voted 14-6 Tuesday night to support the countywide half-cent sales tax increase.
The issue will be put to voters on Nov. 6. Half of the revenue is required by state law to go toward schools.
Commissioners supporting the referendum said that this would be the most equitable way of funding education for all children throughout Shelby County.
Opponents said the increase was coming too soon, before the board even worked out a budget for schools.
Tuesday afternoon before the board meeting, one county commissioner and two school board commissioners spoke to the media about their opposition to the increase.
In particular, they disagreed with language on ads dispersed by Stand for Children, an advocacy group in support of the tax increase.
Stand for Children’s flyers state the increase “will raise $30 million for our schools. This money will expand pre-K programs and fund training that helps ensure there’s a great teacher in every Shelby County classroom.”
Another flyer states “the new funds go straight to the schools – not the politicians.”
“The problem with that is, is that the politicians are exactly going to be the people handling this money,” said Shelby County Commissioner Chris Thomas.
Thomas is part of an opposing group, calling themselves Stand for Kids Memphis. They took issue with some of the semantics of the campaign literature and the promise of pre-K.
Thomas argued that the tax revenue goes to the county commission, who then allocates the money to schools.
So while politicians do handle the money, Tenn. Code 67-6-712 states half of the proceeds must go toward schools.
That will be an estimated $30 million.
Mark Sturgis, the Memphis director of Stand for Children, defended the flyers, saying that anything leading conversation away from children’s educational programs and their funding is a distraction.
“Well here's the sure thing about pre-K. It makes a huge difference in the success of our kids,” Sturgis said.
He admitted one couldn’t say with absolute certainty that this revenue will be used on pre-K expansion, but Sturgis said that elected officials have voiced their commitment to expanding the program.
Kenneth Whalum, a school board commissioner, countered that argument by explaining that the board is only obligated to take care of a K-12 program.
“We have no authority over pre-K,” Whalum said.
He also urged voters to do their own research, and to remember that the school board’s support of the referendum is only one opinion. The decision is ultimately the voters'.
Another school board commissioner, David Reaves, said that he opposed the increase because the board has not gone through a budget to attempt further cuts.
The Transition Planning Commission estimates a shortfall of $57 million even after trimming costs.
“We have not completed our due diligence to understand if we can close that gap or not,” Reaves said.
He suggested that more efficiencies could be found, including offering teacher buyouts.
Both Reaves and Thomas represent areas outside the city limits of Memphis.
Their constituencies have already voted to increase their taxes by half a percent in August, in order to fund their respective municipal schools. Therefore, those voters will not vote on the referendum for the entire county to increase the tax rate to match that of the suburbs'.
When asked why he would support a suburban tax for education, but not one for the whole county, Thomas said, “They were told we need this half-cent sales tax increase to fund our new school system. So they knew that was what was going to happen. In Memphis and unincorporated, they're being told it's going to go to pre-K, and that's not the truth.”
Parents attending the school board meeting Tuesday were largely there to support the continuation of a program for gifted students called CLUE.
Many of them support the tax increase, because even if the revenue does not go to pre-K, it is earmarked for schools.
“Exactly which programs are going to be funded, of course will always be of question,” said Berkeley Burbank, whose four children are all in the CLUE program.
“But the overall total pool of funding available is important. Those things that are on the margin: pre-K, gifted programs, Special Ed; those are the things that are going to get cut. So if you want those in your school system, you need to provide the funding for those,” he said.