Memphis City Council inches toward giving schools $5 million for laptops and internet, but mayor’s office is unsure it’s allowed

Superintendent Joris Ray, left, and Council chairwoman Patrice Robinson. Robinson presented a $5 million resolution for student laptops and internet access using federal coronavirus aid, but the city’s finance chief worries the resolution contradicts federal guidance. (Shelby County Schools)

Update, July 15, 2020: The Memphis City Council approved the $5 million for Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

Days after a Memphis City Council committee approved a resolution to give $5 million of its federal coronavirus aid to Shelby County Schools to purchase laptops and internet access for students, the city’s top finance official said the move may contradict federal guidelines.

Shirley Ford, the city’s finance chief, said the money can be used for laptops and internet access, but since the city does not fund Shelby County Schools, the district may be ineligible to receive aid from the city. 

“The city schools are not a part of the city operating budget,” she told Chalkbeat. “So there is a cloud there whether this is an appropriate use under the CARES Act.”

Ford said her office is checking to see if the district is eligible before the city council holds a final vote in the coming weeks. U.S. Department of Treasury guidance appears to allow local governments to transfer relief dollars to other local agencies, including school districts. A spokeswoman said the city administration interprets the guidance to only allow city governments to transfer relief funds to the state. 

Council chairwoman Patrice Robinson, who is serving on two district advisory committees related to coronavirus planning for schools, presented the $5 million resolution to the council’s budget committee Friday.

If Shelby County Schools is ineligible for the coronavirus relief money, its gap to fund laptops for all students and internet access for those who need it by the fall would double to $10 million. The district’s cost estimates dropped significantly after an advisory committee identified $34 million in savings. The district’s revised $37 million plan presented Monday assumes the City Council passes the $5 million resolution. The school board is expected to vote on the plan Thursday, though board members want more details on how academics would improve once students have the technology.

Superintendent Joris Ray celebrated the Friday vote as historic. Though the city government recently started contributing $6 million annually to expand prekindergarten offerings, the city has not funded the district since the former Memphis City Schools merged with the county school system in 2013. 

Ray said Tuesday that Robinson’s resolution was an “act of good faith” to help the district.

“We’re confident the city’s CARES dollars will be deemed eligible for expenditures to support the education of children during this pandemic,” he said. “We appreciate the advocacy and look forward to a continued partnership with the city as we reimagine education. We are stronger together.”

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In addition to not following federal guidelines, Ford said she worries the council’s resolution “might set a precedent that the city is going to take on those type expenditures for Shelby County Schools.”

Robinson said the resolution for laptops and internet access does not mean the city will fund the district long-term. 

“We are contributing to the best of our ability,” Robinson said, citing the city’s $700 million budget compared to the district’s $1 billion. 

Robinson said she presented the resolution because laptops and internet access are “an essential tool for our students to continue learning.”

“To me this is an opportunity for kids and the community to move into the 21st century,” she said.

Update June 2, 2020: This story has been updated with comments from Superintendent Joris Ray and a City of Memphis spokeswoman.

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