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Protesters demand that Memphis shift money from the police to schools and want more school budget input

Protesters take to Union Avenue, shutting it down to traffic, in protest of recent violence against black citizens by police departments around the county on Wednesday night, May 27, 2020, in Midtown Memphis.
Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal

Memphis demonstrators protesting police brutality this weekend issued a list of 11 demands for the city that includes giving citizens more say in the school budget and shifting city money from the police department to fund K-12 education.

“Disinvest monies for the Memphis Police Department and invest these funds in education and equitable contracting,” one of the demands says.

And “by July 13, 2020, publicly release a revamped plan for Shelby County Schools with budget and curriculum oversight from community activists, organizers and members.”

The demands, compiled by the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter, and Memphis People’s Convention, echo calls in recent years for the City of Memphis to resume funding for K-12 education that the city ended after the former city schools system merged with the county in 2013. It also reflects calls from parents and advocates who want more say in how Shelby County Schools spends taxpayer dollars.

Activists read the demands during Saturday’s protest in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer handcuffed him and pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck. Memphians have gathered to protest every evening since May 27. The group stopped to read the demands at Clayborn Temple, the church building used by sanitation workers to organize during a 1968 strike that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis when he was assassinated.

“The civil unrest is not simply about police brutality. It is about the injustices that devalue black life,” said Earle Fisher of the Memphis People’s Convention, which published a similar list of demands last year. “All of these things are structurally connected.”

I don't know if I'm going live tonight. I know that this needs to be shared like y'all do those videos. #BlackLiveMatter #Memphis

Posted by Hunter Demster on Saturday, May 30, 2020

The City of Memphis in 2018 committed $6 million annually to help expand prekindergarten offerings and pays $1.3 million annually to Shelby County Schools as part of a court order from a lawsuit over funding. Memphis City Council members have shown interest in allocating $5 million of the city’s federal coronavirus aid to help the district purchase laptops and internet access for students, but have faced pushback from the mayor’s administration.

Police services make up about 40% of the city’s $711 million budget and the police department is the most expensive division in city government. While some school districts have moved to cut ties with police departments, Shelby County Schools already hires most of its school resource officers. Only 18 are sheriff deputies.

Fisher said the school curriculum should include more African-American history. During a dual enrollment class he taught at a charter high school through LeMoyne-Owen College, Fisher said students did not know about famous civil rights activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer or about the Fort Pillow massacre that happened less than 50 miles from Memphis during the Civil War.

“There was so much that they never heard of,” Fisher said. “It helps them conceptualize where Memphis and Shelby County is and what it takes for us to move to where we need to be.”

Theryn Bond speaks to a Memphis police officer during protests on Union Avenue Wednesday night, May 27, 2020, in Midtown Memphis.
Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal

Jerica Phillips, the district’s chief of communications, said Monday that the district had not seen the list until Chalkbeat asked about it. In recent years, Shelby County Schools has held community meetings across the city to share updates about the programs and resources the district plans to finance and gather input.

Because large public gatherings were banned this spring to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the district created an email address to collect public comments for one week, then posted the proposed budget online and highlighted some initiatives. The district shared the notice on social media and sent it to parents through robo calls and text messages, Phillips said.

Theryn Bond, a local activist who helped write the demands, said more parents should be invited to the budget process and the district should act on the input.

“It’s definitely about making sure [the district is] adequately and properly funded and that people from the community are able to plug in,” she said.

Even before the protests, the education advocacy organization Stand for Children sent a letter to school board members saying “community engagement around the budget has been rushed, preventing meaningful participation” for the second consecutive year, according to Carl Schneider, who has attended several community input sessions as part of his work with Stand.

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