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Sales tax/Pre-K debate goes down to the wire

  • Written by Kelvin Cowans

PREK 600Voters packed a conference room at The Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Poplar Ave. on Monday evening to receive two sides to the story of the upcoming (Nov. 21) vote concerning the half-cent sales tax increase for Pre-K funding.

By a show of hands, some voters – about a dozen – indicated they had already voted, which had me wondering if they really had understood the proposed Ordinance No. 5495 Local Option Sales Tax. The other 100 or so undecided voters focused in on the educational fruit provided by Barbara U. Prescott, Ph. D. and Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., both former Memphis School Board Commissioners and still champions for the Memphis community.

Dr. Prescott argued for the increase; Dr. Whalum was against it. Prescott's "yes" position was anchored in her belief that the City of Memphis needs this money to make sure our precious babies don't end up ignorant by the 3rd grade.

referendum1 600Dr. Whalum came documentation-ready to show that this vote isn't about whether we want our children to be educated or not, but more so about the city squeezing a poor community for more dinero, skrilla, cheese, bucks aka money.

Here are some out takes from the discussion:

Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr.: "One thing my dad taught me was to never let anyone insult your intelligence. It upsets me that the powers that be assume that voters are stupid. I do not apologize for having passion for the poorest among the poor in America, which are right here in Memphis, Tennessee. Nobody is against Pre-K. You never heard me argue against Pre-K. That is not the issue, the issue is how are we going to pay for it."

Dr. Barbara U. Prescott: There are Pre-K classrooms all over our city. In years past like last year only half of our kindergartners scored well on their Kindergarten Readiness Test. These are children that are starting behind. If you look at last year's 3rd Grade literacy proficiency equivalency test you will see that only a third of them scored well on those literacy tests. So what you see as you look at the data is what we've always intuitively known. That is that when students come to school not ready with those pre-literacy skills such as vocabulary words, basic numeracy skills and attention, these are things that they need.

Dr. Whalum: I received these three props in my mail last week. As you see they are very colorful, highly glossy and they have a lot of beautiful children on the front. But these props are misleading. They read, "The Ballot language of Memphis Pre K initiative guarantees that every child will have access to high quality Pre-K, that they can fully fund high quality Pre-K for every child in the city of Memphis, so that no child is turned away." It goes on to say that "the politicians can't touch the money.

(The crowd laughs)

This ordinance reads, "The proceeds of which levy shall be held in trust by the Pre-K Commission until appropriated." Now who do you think appropriates funds in your city, which means to decide when and how much money is going where...politicians! They will be touching it.

Dr. Prescott: This has been done before and needs to happen again. We need to leverage funds so that we can do what is necessary for children. The state has been lobbied before by both mayors but I don't know about the School Board most recently, but again when I was on the School board People First Partnership had sent in for money and what we had been told is that it would not be forth coming.

Dr. Whalum: "I, like other citizens of Memphis, should direct our city officials to go to the state and get the funds for Pre-K. And if the mayor and city council refuse to do it, then we should vote them out of office. Don't tell us that the state is going to say no to you. Who cares? We didn't ask you that. We told you to go ask for the money."

Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Union, chimed in forcefully.

"We are against it. Memphis got out of the education business, so this is a Shelby County issue, so Shelby County is responsible for it. Number 2, it was to our understanding that when we did the lottery that Pre K would be funded out of that money and we're talking billions of dollars," said Williams.

"Why can't we ask the state for some of that for Pre-K. The City of Memphis is the majority contributor to the state sales tax as well as the lottery program. If raised, this increase translates into about 47 million dollars and they want us to give stewardship of this 47 million dollars to a board that was not elected by the people but appointed by Mayor A.C. Wharton. That's not comfortable to me."

(Kelvin Cowans can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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