“What we have here is a failure to communicate”, as the line goes from the movie Cool Hand Luke. But what Memphis has seen since Monday is not a failure of communication, but an unwillingness to communicate in any venue other than in front of the cameras.
Whalum suggested “we throw a 100-yard pass and force them to catch it. I suggest we not open school until we get everything we need, every duck lined up in a row. … Every day these children are at home with their parents” will put pressure on the City Council.(Source)
And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty well sums up the strategy for this whole “crisis”, put pressure on the City government, at the beginning of the campaign season, and whip up the emotions of the people in order to pressure the City into giving what they haven’t got.
By the time it all came down, the city government was befuddled. In Executive Session on Tuesday, the Mayor and several Council members expressed shock and dismay at what was being put before them…that they pay the majority of their annual contribution to the schools up front.
Parents came down to the Council angry. Teachers, who saw many of their colleagues let go just a week before, began to fear for their livelihood, and parents, most of whom are regular working folks, were left wondering what they would do to arrange childcare for their children. In short, emotions were stirred, and people got scared, and that was by design.
By Wednesday morning, members of the School Board had taken to the national airwaves to try their case before the court of public opinion. Language ranging from mild to down right incendiary was used to make their case. “Deadbeat Dads”, an oft-used phrase of Board member Kenneth Whalum, was the quote of the day. But in reality, something very different was going on here. This was a hostage negotiation, and the kids, and employees of Memphis City Schools were, no doubt, the hostages, but it was the Administration of the School system, and the School Board itself that was holding them hostage, not the City administration or the City Council. Despite this, a whole host of people got collective Stockholm Syndrome and turned against the City government for withholding funds.
Never before has the City fronted the school board money, yet now, in the midst of two court cases, one in State and one in Federal, the City Schools wants their money up front. Even though, for the past two years, in the midst of one of the worse financial crisis’ this nation has faced since the Great Depression, the city has appropriated and disbursed the majority of the City Schools’ money (minus collections that are in arrears), the City Schools wants it all now.
On Tuesday, I got my City property tax bill. It’s not due until August 31st, which means that at best, the city will have collected the largest chunk of its revenue for the year by then. Property taxes make up over 40% of annual revenue. As that money comes in, it will be sent to the appropriate places, including the schools. But the City School Board, knowing full well that the city, who just went through a contentious budget year that saw cuts to services and employee pay, will not see the bulk of their funding for the year until August 31, demands 10% of the annual budget for that city before August 8th? That’s not good faith, that’s a power play.
Does the City owe some $13m from FY 2009 and 2010? Yes, but that’s due to delinquent property tax collections, not some kind of willful withholding of funds. Yesterday, the City released $3m to the City Schools, ahead of schedule, that had been collected from delinquent property taxes. As I sat at the Election Commission earlier this afternoon with several potential candidates waiting for the filing deadline, a deal came across that would give the City Schools an additional $10m from the City’s reserves, in hopes of satisfying the School Board and putting the start date of the schools back on track.
Will it work? Who knows? But it sets a dangerous precedent for two entities whose relations have been strained since the 2008 vote to defund the city’s maintenance of effort funds to the school system.
Let me be perfectly clear. I want the schools to be fully funded so the students and the teachers can start their work on time. I want the City to pay what it appropriates to the schools in a timely fashion. But more than that, I want both entities to deal with each other in a fair, and above board manner, and the way the School Board has acted in the past week is neither fair nor above board. They saw the political lay of the land, and took advantage of it in a brazen and cynical attempt at manipulating parents, teachers, and the public at large to put pressure on the City to do something they’ve already said they’re going to do.
Will the School District accept this offer? Who knows, but the events of the past several days leave a lot of questions on the table that need to be answered. Here are a few:
1. How can the City Schools claim to be owed $151m when $57.5m of that is in litigation, and has been ordered off the table until said litigation, that the City Schools has had no interest in expediting, is ruled upon?
2. In what scenario does any entity give another funds that it hasn’t collected yet? This is not Cash America y’all.
3. What dangers, if any, are exposed by making this deal, and what is this money for? Does it cover the back taxes, is it for FY 2012? I’m pretty sure these details will come out in the coming hours.
In the end, the people who lose are all of us, not the School Board or anyone else. We’ve lost faith, which is something that was in short supply to begin with here in Memphis. The school board chose to put that faith on the line rather than picking up the phone, to use as a political chit, and they should be called to account for that action.
No one may want to acknowledge it, but this crisis was manufactured on Avery, not Main St. The folks that started it should be called to account for their actions.