In their first look at Shelby County Schools budget, county commissioners Wednesday night mostly wanted to hear about how the district plans to address its building needs.

That interest in spending may be a good sign for the Memphis district, which initiated its first-ever joint meeting with county commissioners. All but one of the nine-member school board were present along with nine of the 13-member county commission.

Board member Kevin Woods, who chairs the budget committee this year, said he wanted Wednesday’s meeting to be a “pulse check” on willingness to fund new initiatives with commissioners, most of whom are new to the office.

“We’re still very mindful of the fact that we don’t know their appetite for additional resources for our administration,” Woods said last week explaining the rationale for convening the joint meeting.

Both boards are wrestling with what to do with a massive facilities plan left by the former Shelby County Schools superintendent to consolidate schools in 28 old buildings into 10 new ones and to deal with buildings left vacant from school closures. Commissioners also urged district leaders to more quickly spend allocated capital funds to address about $500 million in deferred maintenance.

Interim Superintendent Joris Ray has proposed $63 million on capital projects, but Wednesday did not provide more specifics on next steps for facilities.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Interim superintendent Joris Ray

“That’s going to be the baseline,” Ray said about the consolidation plan. “We want to engage the community… Of course that’s pending board approval and also just having conversations with the board on what’s the best way to move forward.”

District leaders have yet to present their full proposed budget, the first under Ray, putting them behind schedule compared with previous years. Some county commissioners were just glad to get an early look at district priorities.

“I’m glad that we’re able to meet now instead of at the last second,” said county commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. In previous years, the Shelby County board has passed its budget, then sent it on to the county board for approval — without any joint discussion.

Lin Johnson, the district’s deputy superintendent of finance and operations, said he expects to present a budget proposal to the school board sometime before its May 21 meeting. The district expects to hold three community meetings on the budget from April 29 to May 10.

The budget includes two major parts: the general operating fund that pays for the day-to-day expenses of running the district, including teacher salaries and classroom initiatives; and the capital budget that covers the costs of new schools and building maintenance.

The past two budget cycles have been less painful compared with several years of tough cuts that came after one of the nation’s largest school system mergers. The exit of six suburbs to create their own districts created a gaping hole in funding for the city district left behind, and the district dipped heavily into its reserve funds.

As reported to the school board about three weeks ago, the district expects to spend $1.04 billion in its general fund, which is about 1% less than last year’s budget. That includes a 2.5% pay raise for teachers, a 2% raise for other school staff, and $10 million drawn from district reserves. The budget total could change as district staff talk more with board members.

For the capital budget, district leaders are requesting 30% less than the $90 million they received last year.

About 2% of capital spending would benefit schools in the state-run Achievement School District, which use district-owned buildings at no charge. State district leaders have pressed Shelby County Schools to address building needs, which the district’s previous long-term facilities plan ignored.

Bob Nardo, the executive director of Libertas Montessori School, said he is hoping for more from the district, but sees the initial budget plan as a “significant step.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
School board member Stephanie Love speaks during the first ever joint meeting between commissioners and the Shelby County Schools board.

“Not only because of it being the first meeting like this between [Shelby County Schools] and county officials, but also because you heard SCS officials saying that the whole portfolio — [Achievement School District] and SCS — needs to be looked at,” he said after the meeting. “Especially as 10% of county students go to an ASD school, but we’ve received 2% of capital budget improvements — we know there’s an inequity there.”

Board member Stephanie Love said she was hoping for more questions during the meeting from county commissioners, but appreciated the opportunity for the two governing bodies to meet and discuss.

“When you’re looking at a billion-dollar budget, it can sometimes be overwhelming,” she said after the meeting. “But we did provide a space for them to ask questions… We just want to make sure they’re comfortable.”

The district is scheduled to present its final budget to county commissioners on June 5.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.