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Council mulls how to fund pre-K programs in Memphis

Hotel stays in Memphis could be a bit pricier if the Memphis City Council increases the hotel tax to fund prekindergarten programs in the city.

That possibility was part of a pre-K discussion that unfolded during the council’s executive session on Tuesday

“We got out of the education business. We never got out of the children business,” council member Martavius Jones (Super District Pos. 3) said.

Council members are considering raising Memphis’ hotel tax to 5 percent from the current 3.5 percent – much to the dismay of tourism and hotel owners. With money from the tax, Shelby County would inch closer to the $16 million needed to fund pre-K programs.

The county could lose $7.9 million in pre-K funding by May 2019 when a preschool development grant expires. If funding is not replenished, thousands of preschool-age children could be affected.

“While the adults are arguing about where the money’s coming from, our children are suffering,” council member Patrice Robinson (District 3) said. “Every child that is eligible for pre-K should have access to high-quality pre-K education in our community.”

Robinson suggests using $5 million from hotel/motel tax revenue each year to fund pre-K programs. The “preschool to prison” pipeline has to end, she said.

Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, a local nonprofit that works to improve education for children, is in favor of the tax increase. “Pre-K works for our children here and gives them the opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Sturgis assists with research on the successes of children enrolled in preschool.

“We can’t tell a thousand 4-year-olds your seat’s gone,” Sturgis said. More than 8,000 children might have to sit out pre-K if funding is cut.

Select places and schools across Memphis and Shelby County offer preschool programs, like Headstart, but they are income based.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said he is open to the possibility of a tax increase.

“Few investments could mean more to the future of the City of Memphis than ensuring that all of our children can enroll in pre-kindergarten,” Strickland said in a Facebook post. “It’s a cause I was proud to lead on the Memphis City Council, and it’s a cause that I’m proud to be involved in now as your mayor.”

Wayne Tabor, president of the Metropolitan Memphis Hotel & Lodging Association, told council members that, “We’ve talked to guests just this last tourist season and we are losing guests to Southaven and to West Memphis that don’t want to pay the higher tax.

“There are businesses on President’s Island that rent rooms to put their corporate people in Southaven because of the high taxes in the Memphis market.”

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