Memphis school leaders reevaluating budget after county rejects request for millions more

Shelby County government building in downtown Memphis.
Shelby County government building in downtown Memphis.

After county commissioners rejected Shelby County Schools’ request for $46 million more than what the district received last year, district leaders are re-evaluating their priorities in a budget that was tight even before the pandemic fallout threatened funding. 

The decisions from the local funding body for Memphis-area public schools were a blow to the district’s technology plan that would provide a laptop or tablet and Wi-Fi access to any student who needs it. The plan relies on federal relief money but even with that is still short by nearly $73 million. 

County commissioners voted Monday to keep the current school funding level after years of increases because the county faces steep cuts to sales tax revenue as people spend less at local businesses because they are staying home or lost their jobs. They also approved a little more than half the building maintenance budget compared with last year and said the district could not get the money until it presented its long-awaited facilities plan.

Based on the district’s request, the commission’s vote could mean that while a 1% teacher pay raise from the state is still in the budget, teachers may not get an additional performance bonus and various programs to improve student learning may be cut. And some Memphis school buildings could forego needed repairs such as roof replacements, gym upgrades, new heating and air systems, parking lot pavings, or classroom additions. 

Superintendent Joris Ray talks to county commissioners over videoconference about the 2020-21 budget. (Shelby County Schools)

Superintendent Joris Ray said as the coronavirus threat mounted and eventually closed schools, district officials had to re-prioritize what got done. The district’s “Reimagine 901” building plan had to be put on hold, he said. 

“After gathering community input, we had hoped to bring forth a 10-year plan to our board as we move forward in Reimagining 901,” Ray said in a statement. “Then COVID-19 happened, which has compelled the entire nation to reevaluate its priorities and practices.”

Commissioners said since the district was already close to finishing the plan, the crisis should not delay the presentation much further. Ray said he plans to present the plan in August. 

But Shante Avant, who leads the school board’s budget committee with Stephanie Love, said even the content of the plan may have to change depending on how students and staff return to school in the fall. Ray has said that school could be in person, online, or a mix of both

“If we’re not even inside a building, how should those resources be shifted to make sure education happens in the fall?” she said. “We have to be ready and prepared to provide instruction in the fall. That is critically important.”

A student works on a laptop in a classroom at Gardenview Elementary School in Memphis. (Karen Pulfer Focht for Chalkbeat)

The district is unlikely to get more money from other sources. Further state cuts to education are possible as the legislature convenes next week. And as the state follows  guidance from U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos to divert more federal coronavirus aid to private schools, Shelby County Schools could stand to lose millions more. 

The district set up a relief fund in March to help purchase laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi access for students who need it. So far, individuals and businesses have donated about $28,000, said Vincent McCaskill, the CEO of SchoolSeed, the district’s fundraising arm. Now that Ray has presented a detailed plan on how to get the district’s 95,000 students online, larger donations are expected. 

“A lot of people were waiting to hear the district’s plan for laptops and distribution,” he said. “When they’re giving to an effort, they want to see a plan. They don’t want to see bullet points.” 

In the meantime, school board members will need to revise the budget for the 2020-21 school year. Board member Althea Greene said she doesn’t want to cut more jobs, but would be willing to forego $14 million in new textbooks and curricula for a year. The budget already calls for eliminating about 360 positions, a third of which would be people losing their jobs. The rest would be vacant positions.

Love said she wants the district to retain as much staff as possible dedicated to supporting student emotional health, especially since the pandemic and economic fallout have shaken up families.

“Of course we’re going to have to make hard decisions. That’s what we do. But we have to sit down and decide what our priorities are and decide from there,” she said.

The school board is expected to discuss the budget at its meeting Tuesday and make further adjustments in June, Avant said.

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