Funding approval will save 1,000 pre-K seats in Memphis

Shelby County commissioners signed off Monday on $2.5 million in new prekindergarten funding — replacing federal early childhood funds that are expiring June 30.

The “seed funding” is part of a total $8 million commitment from Shelby County Schools and from city and county governments to preserve 1,000 pre-K seats for the upcoming school year. A federal grant had previously covered these seats, serving some of the neediest 4-year-olds throughout Shelby County.

The multi-year local funding effort will gradually increase over the next three years, while also leveraging private philanthropic dollars.

Commissioners voted 12-1 in support of the initiative, with Commissioner Mick Wright abstaining. But earlier, the county funding piece appeared to be in jeopardy. Before discussion began, the commission’s chairman, Van Turner, addressed education advocates in the audience, warning that the commission likely wouldn’t be able to fully fund pre-K and K-12 requests, citing a “tight budget because of missed [revenue] projections.”

A few moments earlier, the commission had voted down a $7.5 million request from Shelby County Schools over its original billion-dollar budget. But parents and advocates touted the virtues of pre-K and pleaded with commissioners to fund it.

Taviannca Worsham, a parent and pre-K teacher at LIbertas School of Memphis, implored commissioners to continue the funding. “I admit that I don’t understand this [budget] process and all the components that go into this decision, but I do know there is no dollar amount that can be placed on the magic when a child is afforded the opportunity to be educated,” Worsham said.

And Glen Hancox, who has grandchildren in the district, contended that while many of the things that commission funds will be outdated in several years, pre-K will not. “When we fully fund the pre-K, we make an investment in the early lives of these children,” Hancox said. “Thirty years from now when you and when I am no longer here that investment will continue to pay off.”

The pre-K funding will come from the county’s reserves. Those funds are expected to be replenished once a court case has been resolved, said Turner, who did not say what case he was referencing.

Turner said the funding is a nonrecurring amount, meaning that the county isn’t obligated by law to continue funding the program in future years like it would be with Shelby County Schools. Under state law, local government bodies are required to maintain local funding for public schools from one year to the next.

Later in the meeting, commissioners reconsidered the Shelby County Schools funding request and agreed to $2.2 million in one-time spending for phonics and coding. Commissioners also approved a three-year contract with the nonprofit First 8 to serve as the fiscal agent to oversee the countywide pre-K program starting July 1.