County commissioners unanimously voted Monday to give Shelby County Schools about a third of its original request for funding so that the Memphis district could pay for a pilot program for computer coding and a phonics curriculum.
The $2.2 million in one-time expenses, recommended by county commissioner Tami Sawyer, will come from the county’s reserves and does not obligate the county, which funds half of the Memphis schools budget, to pay it again next year.
The decision reversed a rejection earlier in the meeting where most commissioners abstained from voting to give the county’s seven school systems $2.5 million more than previously budgeted. Shelby County Schools would have received about $1.9 million of that total.
Commissioners also gave the district about two-thirds of its request for school building projects out of the $64 million requested last month.
The agreement was similar to one reached in last year’s budget cycle, when commissioners approved half a requested increase as a one-time expense and the other half as a recurring cost to be paid every year.
The one-time expense turned into a compromise that got commissioners on board with meeting some of the district’s request.
“I can’t in good conscience walk away from this budget process without having done what we’ve set out to do for schools,” Sawyer said. “Our taxes have been cut… and here we are: underfunded and our people underserved.”
County Mayor Lee Harris said there wasn’t any room in the budget and the only solution would be to dip into the county’s reserves — a move he did not recommend.
“No one has found any money, it’s just coming off our savings account,” Harris told commissioners before the 10-0 vote.
But board members were elated that part of the budget request was met.
“We feel pretty good,” said school board member Kevin Woods. “The county commission had a tough job identifying priorities and finding the resources to fund those priorities. So, finding $2.2 million for education was, based on where we started today, we were very appreciative of them being able to find those resources.”
The phonics curriculum will have some one-time startup costs such as technology and training, but also some recurring costs such as student workbooks, so Woods said the district will need to figure out how to fund that part next year.
The school board will now need to adjust its approved budget to accommodate the county commission’s decision. As of Monday afternoon, the Tuesday school board agenda did not include a budget vote.
When the commissioners turned down the district’s original request, school board member Stephanie Love chided county leaders.
“Y’all have been telling us, the world has been telling us to catch up, catch up. But every time we try to get up, somebody’s telling us, ‘Not now.’ When will we have the opportunity?” she said.
At the center of the debate was whether or not the county should raise the property tax rate, lowered last year by the previous county mayor’s administration — though no commissioner outright proposed a tax increase. Also competing for reduced property tax revenue were $78 million in requests from departments in the new county mayor’s administration.
After abstaining from the first vote on district funding, county commissioner Brandon Morrison said, “I’m against a tax rate increase, but I’m very much for education.”
County commissioner Reginald Milton said he voted against the earlier recommendation as “more of a protest,” because of a mistake in the county’s own budget forecast that didn’t account for the reduced property tax rate. “If we had adjusted it properly, we wouldn’t have all these issues,” he said after the vote.