Battle lines drawn in school budget battle - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Battle lines drawn in school budget battle; parents left scrambling

(WMC-TV) - An explosive comment by Memphis Schools Board Commissioner Kenneth Whalum, Junior was heard around the world on CNN Wednesday morning.

"It's a nationwide phenomenon where local elected officials find other things to do with money that should be directed toward children," Whalum said. "I call it the deadbeat dad syndrome."

The Memphis City Schools funding fight became national news after the school board voted 8 to 1 Tuesday evening to suspend school - indefinitely - until the city pays school an overdue 55 million dollars.

"I regret that it came to this," Mayor A C Wharton said.

Across several segments Wednesday, CNN hosts interviewed Memphis school and city leaders.

"All we're saying is we will not be able to start school with a full payroll for our teachers and our faculty and our staff," school board commissioner Stephanie Gatewood said.

Commissioner Martavius Jones was asked how students will make up days if there is a delay.

"By law, we are required to 180 days of instruction," Jones replied. "So we would have to extend the school year."
     
Gatewood told viewers the children should not be caught in the middle of this.

"We're absolutely not using them as pawns," she said. "The fact if the matter is we want to be able to offer them a quality education."

At a press conference later Wednesday afternoon, Wharton said MCS will get its $55 million, but in installments.

"I want to clear this up," he said. "I don't understand that they're asking for 55 million dollars. We don't have that - just point blank - because people have not paid their taxes yet."

Taxes aren't due until August 30th. Wharton said the $55 million cannot be paid until tax money comes in.

The school system said the three million was supposed to arrive Monday, nut it wasn't deposited until the school board voted to delay the school year.

Wharton said he has always fought to pay the schools money due.

"You remember...one of the first things I did in December," he said. "Folks said it was political suicide to go before the council and say please put that money back in there for the schools.  I didn't cause it, but I'm going to fix it."

The school system and the Memphis City Council are putting out contrasting information this week. MCS says the city has paid them $168.2 million, while the council says they've paid $171.7 million. MCS says the city still owes them $151.3 million dollars. The council says the two sides are still in a court battle over $160 million dollars MCS borrowed from the city to build schools.

"We'll sit down like grown folks," Wharton said. "This is about the children. It ain't about us. Let's put our egos, political and otherwise aside. This is not the time for blame. Let's take care of the kids  Then we can go and blame each other."

The decision to potentially delay the 2011-2012 school year left parents of MCS students scrambling to find a place for their children to go this fall.  

Wednesday, Sherry Carruth joined many other MCS parents who may be tasked with finding a place for their children to go when summer daycare and camps end.

"I'm pretty upset the schools aren't going to be open, but they can't open if they don't have the funds," she said.

Phil Vaughn, with Lindenwood Christian Life Center on Union, says his organization is prepared to help parents.

"We will extend our summer camp program for as long as we need to cover the gap between when city schools start and when our camp ends," he said. "We have about 180 kids in our summer camp, and we have a lot of kids who come for our after school program."

Vaughn says they're also offering a deal to parents.

"We normally charge $110 dollars a week for camp," he said. "We're going to drop that to $100 a week to try to help parents as much as we can."

"My debt ceiling hasn't raised, so it's really hard on me," Carruth said. "I'll have to come up with the money some way.  I have to make sure my child is safe.  I just can't leave her home alone."

Carruth has some advice for school and city leaders as MCS continues to force the city to make good on its funding promises.

"(They should) get off their behinds, do what they're paid to do," she said.

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