The Shelby County Commission voted Monday to approve Shelby County Schools’ $47.4 million request for funds for capital improvement funds. The commission also tacked on an additional $4.8 million to fund capital improvement projects in the six new municipal school districts that plan to open in the suburbs of Memphis, per an amendment from commissioner Mike Ritz.

The county commission had not funded capital improvement projects for the county’s public schools in two years, while school officials were in the process of merging legacy Memphis City Schools with suburban Shelby County Schools. Dorsey Hopson II, the superintendent of the merged Shelby County school system, said that the funds barely begin to address the needs in the district’s old and decaying buildings.

This year, school officials have been focused on the “demerger,” as the plans for new suburban school districts carved out of the current merged system are being called. Just how funds, students, and teachers will be distributed among the seven school systems in the county has been disputed all year. Initially, the county commission planned not to fund capital improvement for the new districts, saying it was unclear how they should distribute funds because they do not yet have enrollment figures.

Ritz’s amendment adds 11 projects spread among Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Lakeland, and Germantown, five of the six suburbs. The Shelby County Schools initial request had focused on schools that will be within Shelby County Schools boundaries next year, with the exception of a roof project located in Millington, the sixth suburb.

Commissioners voted 8-3 to approve Ritz’s amendment and fund Shelby County Schools’ request. That means the county will spend $52.2 million on schools-related capital projects.

“In the end, we got the dollars we requested,” said Shelby County Schools board chair Woods.

The vote came after an extended, sometimes heated debate during which commissioners considered sending the entire request back to committee and revisited previous arguments about schools funding. Superintendent Hopson and board chair Kevin Woods were called to address the commission twice.

Ritz said his amendment is “fair for everyone.” He said that the commission plans to provide $55 million in capital funds for schools in coming years, and that his new proposal falls within that range.

The school capital improvement funds debated today come out of $75 million the commission planned to spend on capital improvements countywide this year. So far, $20 million is slotted to go to other county projects and $5 million to renovations in the old Sears Crosstown building, while $50 million was slated to go over to the school. The $52 million request puts the county slightly over that $50 million mark, but will not affect the county’s credit rating, according to a county official.

Commissioner Sidney Chism asked why the commission was adding funds for the suburban school systems in the first place. “We debated last session whether or not we should even give the (Shelby County) board money they needed…I find it ironic that any time we come up with (a) proposal that funds the school system in fashion it should be funded, some of my colleagues come up with ideas about how they can expand it to put revenue into the municipalities.”

“They’ve got an additional tax base,” he said. Each of the suburban towns planning to create a district voted last year to raise sales taxes in order to fund their new districts, while the merged Shelby County district’s funds come entirely from the county.

A series of feasibility reports for the school systems put together by Southern Education Strategies did not include capital funding needs in the municipal districts, though it did lay out capital improvement needs at schools in the new districts.

Shelby County Schools’ request also includes a new school building aimed at eventually holding students who now attend Westhaven, Fairley, and Rainshaven Elementary Schools, in south Memphis. 

Commissioner Terry Roland responded, “We’ve come so far…For two years we haven’t given the schools anything. We’re talking about two million. At the end of the day, if we can pass this, everyone in Shelby County will be happy.”