In a change from previous years, Memphis schools likely to get less money than requested from county

Shelby County Schools could get about a quarter of the additional funds it requested from county commissioners for day-to-day expenses next budget year, and about two-thirds of its ask for building projects.

County commissioner Michael Whaley recommended Wednesday allocating $2.5 million more to the operating budget for all seven of Shelby County’s school systems. Memphis schools would get about $1.9 million of that — which is less than the $7.5 million requested in the budget approved by the school board last month.

County commissioners, who are responsible for half of district funding, punted a decision on the proposal to Monday, when a final vote on the county budget is expected.  Education advocates are expected to push for full funding of the district’s request.

“Saying no to this academic investment is saying yes to more prisons,” said Lloyd Stovall, a co-leader for the education task force of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, known as MICAH.

The state allocates the remaining funding to school districts based on student enrollment.

In recent years, the county commission has managed to meet the district’s funding requests. But this year, various county departments in a new administration under county Mayor Lee Harris are competing for reduced property tax collections with $78 million in requests. Shelby County Schools originally planned to ask for $10 million above Harris’ budget, but reduced it to $7.5 million last month after district officials decided to find funding for prekindergarten classrooms from other sources.

The county budget is “tight,” Whaley told Chalkbeat. “The $2.5 million in and of itself is going to be a battle.”

County commissioners later approved a recommendation to add $10 million more than Harris’ budget for school building projects in all seven districts. That still leaves Shelby County Schools short of the $64 million it requested by about 37%.

County commissioner Mark Billingsley said paying for capital improvements was more important to him because it didn’t seem the district’s $7.5 million request for programs such as ACT prep, more teachers for English language learners, and computer coding classes “moves the needle” in comparison to the district’s $1 billion budget.

“I’m really concerned about student safety and being educated in a room that doesn’t leak,” Billingsley told Chalkbeat.

Considering the budget constraints this year, school board member Kevin Woods called the commission’s school building projects budget recommendation a “win” for the district.

“We went into this process advocating for what’s best for kids against the backdrop knowing the county is facing a very difficult budget year,” Woods said. “We are going to continue to advocate up until the final vote… We’ll find a way to fund the things that matter.”

Other recommendations from county commissioners to respond to the district’s operating budget request may emerge, but Whaley’s was the sole proposal Wednesday.

“Whenever we make a request and we’re denied, it’s always heartbreaking,” said school board member Stephanie Love, adding the board will need to amend its list of investments. County commissioners “have so many other obligations and education is not always put first.”

As county commissioners were discussing more money for schools, about 30 people rallied outside chanting “fund students first” to urge county leaders to fulfill the district’s request.

“We know that our young people are struggling in their schools, in their communities,” said Cardell Orrin, the city director for Stand for Children. “And our district, Shelby County Schools, has put forth a budget with a bunch of great investments that hit students at all levels.”

In addition to Stand for Children and MICAH, advocacy organizations represented included 9-0-One Organizing Network for Equity, Seeding Success, and Memphis Education Fund.

Koedy Harper, a member of 9-0-One who teaches English language learners at Kate Bond Elementary School, said his students “tend to get overlooked.”

Though he lauded the district for starting to train staff on translating report cards into Spanish, he said parents would benefit from having all official school documents translated into Spanish and several other languages spoken by Memphis families.

“I can empathize with that. You feel shut out of your child’s education,” Harper said.

Notably missing was parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which has rallied supporters for Shelby County Schools funding in the past. The organization’s executive director Sarah Carpenter said she supported more pre-K funding, but was not satisfied with progress in Tennessee’s largest district.

“We aren’t going to rally for Shelby County Schools when they don’t listen to parents or only listen to parents who are in their ‘amen’ corner, and not parents who want significant change,” said Carpenter, who has advocated for simpler enrollment processes across traditional and charter schools and closing district-run and charter schools with low test scores.

The county commission is expected to vote Monday for the budget year that starts July 1.

Chalkbeat reporter Kathryn Palmer contributed to this story.