Video: Memphis schools battle

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    >>> welcome back. it may be a long summer for students in memphis , and we're not talking about the heat there.

    >> we might be talking about giving up the whole year, y'all. if we're serious.

    >> and they are serious. the school board decided to delay the start of class because of a dispute over money with the city government . memphis city schools say the government owes them millions of dollars in tax revenue, and they have given the city council every opportunity to pay the money owed to the schools, and to pay the money owed to the schools, joining me now live, is memphis city council member myron lowry. thanks so much for joining me.

    >> why wouldn't the city pay the schools if this money is owed?

    >> the city will be paying these dollars. a lot of this is tied up in the court. there currently is a legal battle in federal court right now over the school system . many people don't know that the school board voted to dissolve itself last december. the city council agreed, and there was a referendum, and the citizens in this city said that the memphis city school system should be absorbed by the county. right now that's involved in court, and the city is obligated to pay, and we will pay.

    >> but with this said, is this true that school could be delayed indefinitely?

    >> well, this is a decision that the board of education is threatening, and i think that's an idle threat. let me tell you why.

    >> why do you think it's idle because they sound serious?

    >> the board of education is less than 10% of their $1 billion budget. you're not going to close schools because you don't have 10% in your hand.

    >> so when might we see a resolution here? i mean, if i'm a parent in memphis , i'm probably not happy with either side here, especially when you're talking about holding up school.

    >> i understand, and parents should be excited about this. it is -- this is an internal power play between the school board and the city. nothing more, nothing less. students and teachers should not be affected. they should know that school will open on time. they should know that the bills will be paid. the city council has appropriated all of the dollars requested by the board of education . they simply do not have it in hand. as of today, we've sent them an immediate $3 million. we're going to have our education committee hearing tomorrow to look at their budget.

    >> right.

    >> we haven't even looked at their budget for the coming year. this will be resolved. schools should open on time.

    >> and i hope you are right. city councilman myron lowry, thanks so much.

    >> thank you.

msnbc.com
updated 7/20/2011 3:53:02 PM ET 2011-07-20T19:53:02

In an escalating political battle, the school board in Memphis, Tenn., is threatening to delay the start of school year until the City Council forks over $55 million in tax revenue earmarked for education.

By an 8-1 vote, the board decided Tuesday to postpone the start of the school year, currently scheduled for Aug. 8, until the City Council approves the Memphis City Schools budget for fiscal 2012 and deposits the money in the district’s account.

“It would be imprudent to start schools and have to shut down in October, November or December,” school board President Martavius Jones told msnbc.com on Wednesday. “…  And based on the city’s prior behavior, we have not been able to count on a reliable revenue stream.”

Jones was referring to a bitter ongoing funding dispute with the City Council dating to 2008, when the council approved a property tax cut and cut $57 million from the school system’s annual budget. The school board sued and won a settlement for the amount, but the cash-strapped city has not yet repaid the shortfall.

In total, the city now owes $151 million to the school district, including $78 million for the upcoming school year, and the board wants assurances it will get the latter amount before beginning classes, Jones said.

Mayor A. C. Wharton has said the money has been set aside but cannot legally be deposited into the school board’s accounts until the City Council approves the district’s budget. An emergency meeting of the council’s Education Committee was scheduled for Tuesday to begin that process.

Meanwhile, City Council President Myron Lowery accused the school board of political grandstanding, noting that the city funds account for only 10 percent of the district’s annual budget.

“There is no reason for the board to pull the trigger because they don’t have 10 percent of their money in hand,” he said in a telephone interview. “…  Right now this seems to be a power play by a Board of Education that will soon be out of business.”

Lowery was referring to the fact that the Memphis City Schools has sought to legally dissolve itself in 2013 and be absorbed by the smaller suburban Shelby County Schools system. The Shelby County district went to court to attempt to block the move and the move is currently in limbo as a federal court decides the issue.

The latest dispute adds even more uncertainty to the equation, said Staci Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Memphis City Schools.

"It’s a mess, it's chaos," she said. "And it’s unfortunate because at the end of the day, it’s children and their families that are being placed in the middle of all this."

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