Leaders representing a coalition of civic organizations stepped up Wednesday (Oct. 10) to voice support for the ½ cent county sales tax increase.
Participating organizations at a Wednesday afternoon press conference at 160 S. Hollywood included Stand for Children, the Shelby County Democratic Party, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, Latino Memphis, Fight Crime Invest in Kids, and Our Kids Our Future.
The groups joined to encourage voters in Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County to vote yes for the referendum that will appear first on the November 6th election ballot.
The state of Tennessee has mandated that 50 percent of revenue generated – an estimated $30 million – from the ½ cent sales tax increase be used for school purposes once city and county systems merge in 2013.
Emphasizing how revenue generated from the sales tax will be used to increase education funding and to address other community challenges like crime and neighborhood blight, participants vowed to work together to increase community awareness and voter turnout.
"Children cannot vote, so it's our responsibility to advocate on their behalf," said Kenya Bradshaw, executive director of Tennessee Stand for Children and a member of the Transition Planning Commission.
"We could not be more excited and encouraged by the steps that our elected leaders are taking to put children and their educational needs first. It shows us that they are not just talking, and are as committed as we are to improving public schools and ensuring that students have the learning tools and community resources needed to be successful. Local academic achievement rates are demanding our immediate attention."
According to the Tennessee Department of Education, only 10 percent of all Shelby County school students graduate high school college-ready.
Coalition members maintain that without the additional funding that the county sales tax increase would generate, it is unlikely that the Shelby County Board of Education will be able to support new measurers to improve student outcomes. Specifically noted were expanding access to Pre-K to all students and investing in teachers.
Van Turner, chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, stressed the need for a groundswell of community support to ensure the sales tax referendum passes to not only improve education quality, but also to strengthen communities.
"No one likes to think about raising taxes, but this is one increase that will greatly benefit children and adults in Memphis and Shelby County," said Turner.
"By voting yes on referendum 1, we can help the city of Memphis put more crews on the streets to clean up abandoned properties, keep our community centers and libraries open, and support new investments that will help to deter crime and improve our neighborhoods. Additionally, a vote no for the sales increase is a vote to raise property taxes. We do not want that to happen."
Elected leaders from the city of Memphis and Shelby County have said that if the sales tax referendum fails, property taxes in the city and county could increase by as much as .40 cents.
The coalition members are planning additional activities to educate voters on the short and long-term benefits of the sales tax increase leading up to Election Day, Nov. 6th.
"Education is the most important civil rights issue of our time," said Jacob Flowers, executive director of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center. "As parents, the educators that we entrust our children with deserve to have the funding that is needed to provide a high quality education in Shelby County. We owe this to our children and our entire community to support this referendum."
Early voting begins Oct. 17th. The county sales tax referendum must pass with a majority vote to go in to effect.
"We are strongly urging all citizens to support the sales tax increase," said State Rep. Johnnie Turner.
"If you want better schools, vote yes on referendum 1. If you want better neighborhoods, vote yes on for referendum 1. If ou want to improve conditions for children and adults in Shelby County, vote yes on referendum 1."
(For more information, go to www.voteyes4schools.com.)