Parents Urge School Board Not to Cut Programs or Staff

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(Memphis) Facing a possible $80 or $90 million shortfall, the Shelby County Board of Education invited comments Monday night on the first of two public hearings.

Parents and educators urged the board commissioners to save gifted programs, arts programs, physical education, and most importantly, teacher and staff positions.

Tim Setterlund, chairperson of the committee that put together this rough draft budget, told the group in his presentation, “We know that the situation is dire. There’s work that we need to continue to do. To make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

The right thing however, is different depending on whom you ask.

The current proposal suggests a beginning deficit of $157 million. Additional crucial expenses add $19 million, and an obligation to retiree funding is estimated at $15 million. Then with $108 million in proposed cuts, that leaves $80 to $90 million left to make up.

The $108 million in cuts cover many jobs and benefits. Specifically, clerical staff, central office jobs, counselors, bilingual mentors, librarians, and drivers ed are some of the categories on the chopping block.

School closures and the outsourcing of custodial work and transportation are also included in cost-saving measures.

Meanwhile, Setterlund explained that the costs of running both school systems keeps growing, while the revenue keeps shrinking.

Most parents were concerned with keeping programs for gifted students. Others were upset about cuts to P.E. and fine arts for elementary schools.

One parent said, “If you don’t have those things, how do you expect anybody to be able to play football to even go to the Super Bowl? Because you’re taking away PE. When do they learn to play these games? When do they learn to be an artist?”

Julia Harris, a high school freshman, sat in the audience with her mother, wrapping her head around the huge deficit number.

Harris considers herself more of a right-brained creative thinker: “I know that being able to have that reprieve from math class, for you to go to theatre or go to music. It’s refreshing to see something that you can relate to.”

She and many of the people who spoke up suggested shaving costs that this board has incurred in hiring consultants and search committees.

One woman suggested abandoning an expensive search for a new superintendent and just hiring the existing superintendent for Shelby County Schools, John Aitken.

Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association, stated dismay over the hiring of consultants.

“These people coming here, making all of this money, giving poor advice. I would not pay for someone to tell me that I’m $100 million short,” Williams said.

Still, no one mentioned paying higher taxes, a very real possibility, especially when people seem to want to keep all programs.

Aitken told News Channel 3, “Obviously all of us would like to figure this out without an increase in property tax, but it’s going to have to be part of the talk, quite honestly.”

If the Shelby County Commission votes to increase property taxes by just under 10 percent (the maximum allowed without needing supermajority support), a homeowner with a $100,000 house will see an increase of about $100 per year.

There is one more public session Tuesday night from 6-8p.m. at the MCS Teaching and Learning Academy at 2485 Union Avenue. Anyone who wishes to comment can submit a card to be heard.