If it seems like the school funding debate in Shelby County is louder this year than in the recent past, that’s because it is.
The budget that county commissioners are reviewing will set a new important baseline for future education funding. That makes the stakes higher for Tennessee’s largest school district to push for more money before the July 1 budget deadline.
The dynamic is centered around “maintenance of effort,” or the expectation of the minimum funding the county is supposed to give its school district. The state suspended that expectation in 2014 when six municipalities broke off from Shelby County Schools, so the county could fund the new districts’ startup costs without putting itself on the hook to sustain that funding.
The “maintenance of effort” requirement returns in 2017. Thus, whatever the Shelby County Board of Commissioners decides to give Shelby County Schools this year will set the minimum funding the county must provide next year.
That may help to explain the county administration’s apparent unwillingness to budge from its first proposal. It also may shed light on why Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has sought to engage local families and advocates in the budget process, through the hashtag #StudentsDeserveMore and proposed — but not carried out — cuts to programs with strong backers.
“We’ve had to make very difficult decisions over the past few years to ensure our cuts do not affect the classroom,” Hopson wrote in an email to the district’s employees in March to kick off the campaign. “But this year could be different.”
The new baseline proposed by Shelby County administrators for Shelby County Schools is $312 million, slightly up from last year but unchanged after Hopson’s campaign. The district’s total budget, which comes mostly from state funding, would be $954 million.
The county could in theory decrease its local school spending below the baseline if the district’s enrollment drops, as it has every year for the past decade. Enrollment declines trigger a different standard for showing maintenance of effort: The county would have to spend at least as much per student as it had in the past.
But Mike Swift, the county’s director of administration and finance, said the county would be unlikely to consider using that standard.
“We have demonstrated for many years that school funding is the first priority of Shelby County with 63 percent of all property tax collections going toward schools,” Swift said. “School enrollment has been declining for over 10 years and reducing funding to the schools was never considered.”
Once the Shelby County Board of Commissioners votes on a final budget on June 20, the Shelby County school board will adjust its spending plan to reflect the commission’s decision. That means, according to Hopson, that the district could reintroduce some budget cuts that it threatened this spring.