By Bill Short
Millington’s school superintendent said recently that the decreased school system budget for the upcoming fiscal year may require cuts in personnel, salary increases and programs.
By identical 4-3 votes, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the first and final readings of the city’s 2016 Budget Ordinance on June 9 and 15 with a $1.1 million decrease in the school system’s funding request. Aldermen Mike Caruthers, Frankie Dakin and Hank Hawkins dissented.
Anticipating that outcome, Dr. David Roper said at the Millington School Board’s June 1 regular monthly meeting that a “significant cut” in the school system’s revenues would have to be “made up somewhere.”
While noting that the system’s administrators would have to consider cuts “across the board” in facilities, personnel, programs and salaries, he acknowledged that it would “not be a pretty picture.”
And although he expressed hope that would not happen, Roper said the administrators had already begun “deliberating” what they would do if they were put in that “untenable position.”
At the June 9 Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, Mayor Terry Jones said none of Shelby County’s five other suburban municipalities are using all of the revenue from their half-cent sales tax increase to fund their school districts.
He noted that they are required by Tennessee law to spend an amount at least equal to a 15-cent levy on the local property tax. For Millington, that is approximately $240,000 a year. In the current fiscal year, Jones said, the city was required to provide $239,576 to the school system. It appropriated $1.3 million for operations and an additional $800,000 to create a fund balance, for a total of $2.1 million.
The mayor also noted that, on a 40-year lease at $1 a year, Millington provided a building at the Harvell Civic Center for the school system to use as its Central Office.
“In FY 2016,” he said, “the city is required by law to provide $247,807 in school funding. The proposed budget being presented tonight provides $500,000, plus an estimated $800,000 worth of drainage and road improvements recommended for the schools to correct the issues that recently caused flooding in the classrooms.”
During the portion of the June 9 meeting designated for public comments, School Board Chairman Don Holsinger said Millington had a successful school year that was “positive” in quality, academics, discipline, extracurricular activities and morale.
For the 2016 fiscal year, he said, the school system requested $1.6 million from the half-cent sales tax fund, with $300,000 of that coming from prior-year funding.
While noting that the four buildings transferred to Millington by the Shelby County School System are in “various conditions of disrepair,” Holsinger said the requested funding is “critical” for renovation of the Freshmen Academy.
“The renovation, in turn, is critical to scheduling and accomplishing the upgrades needed for the high school in fine arts and vocational education,” he said. “Lack of these upgrades will severely affect the quality of education offered in these areas.”
Holsinger noted that the 2016 Budget Ordinance includes a $4.5 million Capital Improvement Program loan for the city that will result in approximately a $300,000 debt service requirement.
The ordinance funds the school system at $500,000 instead of $1.3 million and retains the balance of the sales tax fund to pay the debt service on the city’s CIP projects.
The School Board chairman said the city’s use of the sales tax fund to pay debt service will “obligate” that money for a long time. And that will “negatively affect” the school system’s ability to fund the anticipated debt required in 2017 for construction of a new wing on the high school.
Holsinger recalled that, while facing opposition from “many fronts,” Millington “fought many battles” to establish a municipal school system. He said the Shelby County School System, “especially,” did “everything it could to stop or hinder” the effort, but the city prevailed.
“If you take this action,” he told the aldermen, “you will succeed where Shelby County Schools failed. You will temporarily, and most likely permanently, damage and degrade the education program of the Millington school system.”
Roper recalled that, about 18 months ago, he was considering the School Board’s contract offer to serve as the district’s first superintendent.
He said he closely examined the provisions designed to ensure sufficient funding to organize and operate a municipal school system that could meet the “manifold needs” of the students in an “exemplary fashion.”
He also reviewed the conclusion in the Southern Educational Strategies feasibility study that a 15-cent property tax equivalent would not be sufficient. And he noted that Millington residents agreed with this conclusion by approving a half-cent increase in the Local Option Sales Tax.
Roper acknowledged that, from a “legal standpoint,” the referendum did not “earmark” those revenues for schools. But he recalled being “greatly encouraged” that the Board of Mayor and Aldermen “officially declared” through a resolution that the funds generated by this tax would be used only to establish and operate a municipal school system and, if available, to acquire a new city library.
“If someone had told me then that, after only one year of operation, the city would propose to rescind its previous funding commitment to its own school system, I would not have believed it,” he said.
Because of the funding reduction in the Budget Ordinance, Roper said the school system was receiving “feedback” regarding its efforts to recruit “topnotch instructional personnel” for the district.
He asked the board members what message they would be sending to students, teachers and individuals contemplating the purchase or construction of a house in Millington if they “back away” from the commitment set forth “so clearly” in the 2013 resolution.
Roper said the “issue” is not the “absolute minimum” that must be provided from a legal standpoint.
“I think that is a straw man that is easily knocked down if that is portrayed as the issue,” he concluded. “Do we want to say, ‘How little can we give?’ Or do we want to say, ‘What can we do to make our school system great?’”