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<br />Scramble afoot for solution to delayed-school opening

“If the only thing that is keeping the schools from opening is that they don’t have a reasonable sum of money (from the city), that is not going to happen. We are going to meet our obligations,” said Mayor A C Wharton.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum – often a lone wolf on issues before the Memphis City Schools board, found plenty of support for a push to delay the start of schools until the city pays its outstanding debt. Fellow commissioner Stephanie Gatewood said parents must stop sleeping on issues and should be prepared to march on City Hall. (Photos by Warren Roseborough)

by Tony Jones
Special to the Tri-State Defender

The sand was left up to the imagination, but the line drawn by the Memphis City Schools Board was clear and etched with an 8-1 vote that said classes would not begin for the upcoming academic year until the city pays up on money the board is owed.

That was Tuesday evening. By Wednesday afternoon, Mayor A C Wharton was center stage at a City Hall press conference, where it was announced that the City Council would meet Thursday with an eye toward responding to the board in a manner that would assure that schools would open on the planned first day, Tuesday, August 8.

Hours before the press conference, the city forwarded $3 million to the school board as an indicator that the city is trying to work out a solution.

“If the only thing that is keeping the schools from opening is that they don’t have a reasonable sum of money (from the city), that is not going to happen. We are going to meet our obligations,” said Wharton.

The rift, said Wharton in his characteristic measured tone, is cavernous.

 “Let’s just say this is the worst day of our lives. We’ll get through this and keep our focus on the children.”

Midway through the media session, City Council Chairman Myron Lowery said Wharton was being much too kind in framing the divide.

“I think it is ridiculous to say you are going to delay schools (opening) because you don’t have ten percent of your budget in your pocket. That doesn’t make any kind of sense.  We are not obligated to give them any kind of money until Oct. 1. We have met that deadline,” he said, referring to the record of payments to the school system over the past few years.

Hold firm and don’t start school, educator Clara Ford told school board commissioners, who did just that with an 8-1 vote.

“We have given them $171 million since 2008 and it’s always after the school year has started. We’ve met every deadline well in advance.”

At the board’s emergency-called meeting on Tuesday, Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash said every penny counts right now.  

“We’ve made cuts and layoffs everywhere we could,” he said, later explaining that schools will be open, even if there are no classes because of state mandated requirements.

“For everyday that we delay, that is another day our children don’t have to prepare for these high stakes tests. The state requires that we educate them for 180 days, and no matter what, we will adjust the schedule to have them 180 days, but the timelines for those tests will not move,” said Cash.

“They will start behind the eight ball when they already have enough obstacles.”

The bottom line is that MCS needs 10 equal installments of $7.8 million beginning in August, or alternative, quarterly installments beginning in August, he said.

“Anything other than that and we can’t manage the budget because we are already in a deficit operations mode. I am operating the numbers on a day to day basis now.”

Several citizens attended the Tuesday meeting and made sure the board was aware of their feelings, pro and con.

Educator Clara Ford told the board to stand firm.

 “I am in accord with (School board member) Dr. (Kenneth T.) Whalum Jr. and all of you when you said earlier to throw a pass down the field and let the council catch it,” said Ford.

“We have lost over 150 jobs already. Somewhere and some point in time you need to go back and tell them we need the money. I guarantee you that this city will be up in arms if the parents have to think about having to teach their children at home or trying to find somewhere for their children to go. We must hold firm, don’t start school.”

Fellow educator Myrtle Malone disagreed.

“If you delay, there is more time the children are not learning,” said Malone, adding that the economic impact “will be catastrophic to this community in nonpaid salaries, vendors not being paid and on and on.”   

The dispute has roots that are multi-year deep and includes a court order decreeing that the city owes the schools $57 million from the 2008-09 school year.

Wharton acknowledged being blindsided by the board’s decision.

 “I’ve been asked what is my response now that ‘they’ve called my bluff.’  I’m not going to get into things like that. I do not play children’s games. This is not about being bluffed into anything. The solutions are going to be based on getting the kids into school and that is all.”

As he did during multiple stints on national television Wednesday morning, Wharton explained, “Our money comes to us in September, which is when most people pay their taxes. We are not withholding any money from them (the board), it is not available to us yet,” he said.

“Even if we could, and we cannot, if I was just to pull the money out of one pocket and give it to them, what do I say to the people that have had to take pay cuts and the people that have been laid off?”

Wharton said he was pursuing the option of installments.

“Again, we have to think of reasoned solutions. The school board is not an island unto itself and neither is the city.”

That’s when Lowery stepped in.

“When the mayor first came into office he said that he had to find money for the schools, but I told him that it is not really his worry, it is the job of the council. The council has gotten us into this mess and the council has to get us out of this mess,” said Lowery.

“We’ve taken a beating in the media because we have not been aggressive enough in communicating what we have done. I believe we have to be more aggressive in getting out message out there. We believe in our school system. We’re proud of it. This is a fight that should have never gone public like this. The bottom line is that schools should open on time. Period.”

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