Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell Jr. says that the defeat of the proposed half-cent sales tax referendum should be taken as a clear signal that it's time for the body charged with unifying the schools to avoid any more distractions and get down to brass tacks.
As the county's chief executive, Luttrell will be heavily involved with the new system, and is part of the 21-member Shelby County Transition Planning Commission that is crafting the new school system.
Listed on the Nov. 6th Election Day ballot as Resolution No. 18A, voters rejected the measure by a more than 2 to 1 margin – 172,625 voting to reject, 78,075 in support.
"I wasn't really surprised that it was defeated, but I was really surprised at the margin of the defeat," Luttrell told The New Tri-State Defender on the day following the decision.
Luttrell, who had voiced his objection to the measure earlier, counts the vote as a good lesson in common sense.
"I think the public saw it for what it really was, asking for a tax without any real definition of how it was to be used," he said. "It's always difficult to promote a tax, but they were promoting a tax without any clarity or specifics of how it was to be used."
Seen as the brainchild of Commissioner Mike Ritz, heavily pushed by the Memphis arm of nationally-recognized child advocacy group Stand for Children, and backed by a cadre of local elected officials, the measure's proponents claimed the voters' approval would create $60 million for education, with $30 million earmarked for the new school system to replace an estimated $57 million budget shortfall.
Mayor AC Wharton Jr. supported the measure, suggesting that if Resolution 18a was adopted it could help cut property taxes, and also bolster funding for Pre-K education.
Longtime Memphis City Schools Board Commissioner Patrice Robinson advocated for the tax from it's beginning.
"The sales tax makes more sense than a property tax because anyone that travels here will be contributing," said Robinson.
"But bottom line, we need those dollars to move our children forward. I was insulted when I read an email from an attorney informing me that Tennessee is number 49 out of 50 states in per pupil expenditures. Everybody keeps talking about creating a world-class school system. How are you going to do it without money?"
The effort in pushing the idea was not well structured, Ritz has publicly admitted. "The political leaders were all over the map. That didn't help."
And down the line, a big dollar deficit is waiting.
"It's going to have to come from the property tax," according to Ritz. "And the (proposed) suburban school districts, they're going to be in great need of money."
Which is all well and fine, Luttrell said, but avoids the real need at the core of the measure. It doesn't matter how much money is available if a sound structure for using the funds isn't in place.
"We know that there is a $57 million deficit that we are facing, but there are efficiencies and measures that can be realized that can close that gap, and then at that time we will decide how to fund education for the new unified system," said Luttrell.
"It's going to take a strong will by the unified school board to make some tough decisions immediately and it's going to take some strong political will by the county commission to assist in defining the budget. We are facing an August 2013 deadline. It's time to start making some tough decisions with a strong degree of haste."
He also said the vote against Resolution 18A was a perfect indicator that the Transition Planning Committee is the right structure to get it all done, especially in light of the lessons of the national election.
"The transition committee has done a good job and it's time to let it do its work. We have good gender representation, we have good racial representation and we have reached a consensus with our plan," Luttrell said.
"There have been some racial sentiments on both sides of this issue, but our primary objective is to stay focused on the responsibility to our children. Any sense of racism that is detected in this process we are duty bound to step up and admonish it and do our best to beat it down."
Robinson also underlined the need for community commitment in the transition.
"There was a walkout at Fairley School because they didn't want to be made to go to school on time. As a community, we have got to say that education is important," Robinson said.
"I see kids with their parents in the middle of the school day all the time. It's got to stop. They have iPhones, but wouldn't vote to support this funding. There has to be a paradigm shift in how this community views education."