(Memphis) The merged Shelby County Schools staff presented to the board a $1.187 billion budget Tuesday night, launching them into a discussion over how to make up for a $35.7 million shortfall.
The board discussed the merits of certain cuts versus others for almost three hours, before the public was invited to comment.
Interim Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the board, "It's not an ideal process. When I spoke earlier about maybe using the hedge clippers where maybe we could have used scissors, that's what it is. We said we have to get this amount, so we could make our budget number. That's just what we did."
If the district were fully funded, they would have seen a $147 million deficit. Instead, they made cuts to central office jobs, outsourced custodians, cut transportation funding, cut preschool classrooms, changed staff-to-student ratios, among other things, to whittle down the deficit.
Most in the room focused on pre-K, and its value in the long run to produce higher academic achievement.
One Craigmont High School senior said, "Without pre-K, I wouldn't have had that step ahead or the mindset to stay on top."
She added, "Without the early exposure I received in pre-K, I wouldn't be the student that I am today: an honors graduate, with currently thousands of dollars in scholarships."
But Commissioner Kenneth Whalum argued that while pre-K is valuable, it cannot come at the cost of providing education for K-12, which the district is legally required to do.
" I got a 15-month-old grandchild. He's the most beautiful grandchild in the world. But we're not required to provide pre-K," he said.
Commissioner Mary Ann Gibson brought up a popular topic of why the board is opting to spend on capital improvement projects in the suburbs, when they may soon form their own municipal districts.
Superintendent Hopson said that while that is a very good discussion topic, and something to be considered, that money will not end up helping their budget gap. That money comes from the capital improvement fund, which cannot fund general education.
Attention was also directed at other governmental bodies.
Commissioner Martavius Jones suggested that if county commissioners are not willing to raise taxes to fund education, voters should take them out of office.
Commission Whalum suggested this $35 million budget gap wouldn't exist if the city of Memphis paid up: "Couldn't that all disappear if the city paid the $57 million judgement?"