If there’s a downside to the improved financial condition of Shelby County Schools, it’s the challenge of getting additional funding for a new initiative, even if everyone agrees it’s a good idea.
That scenario played out this week as some county commissioners balked at a request for an extra $1.6 million to open Boys & Girls Clubs inside of three Memphis schools.
The decision was close, just one vote shy of approval, demonstrating the tension among commissioners wrestling over how to invest in a community with big needs, limited resources and a desire to keep property taxes in check.
In many ways, the proposal to open school-based clubs felt like a slam-dunk. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. The district has empty space. Neighborhoods near schools have young people in need of enriching afterschool activities.
“We talk everyday about crime, and this is a safe haven,” Chairman Melvin Burgess told his fellow commissioners on Monday in arguing for the investment. “What people don’t know is that an afterschool program is a place for kids to go instead of an empty home.”
But even as the district’s $985 million spending plan sailed through the board, several commissioners questioned the need for anything extra.
“I really support Shelby County Schools spending their own money to do it,” said Commissioner David Reaves. “They have $80 million sitting in a savings account, and we gave them a huge bump last year. Here’s the reality: I was on the school board and I know how it works. They need to spend their own money.”
The decision kicks the proposal back to district leaders, who have been in talks for months with Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.
A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that Shelby County Schools has no plans to fund the initiative at this time.
Keith Blanchard, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, agreed that it’s now unlikely for new clubs to open inside of Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High by 2018.
“This process has drug out so long, we don’t know what next steps will be yet,” he said. “If we can secure funding at this point, maybe we start in just one school in the fall. Maybe we try again next year. We’re not giving up.”
Shelby County Schools began its 2017-18 budget season without a shortfall for the first time in years, allowing the district next year to provide teacher raises, hire new guidance counselors and behavior specialists, and make new investments in struggling schools.
But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the school system still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success in a community challenged by high poverty and mobility.
Such concerns are among the reasons that school-based investments in Boys & Girls Clubs made all the more sense, according to the idea’s backers.
“(The commission vote) was really disappointing,” said Blanchard. “We thought we had the votes going in. I think it was most disappointing for the students who were there, and for them to have to listen to the reasons why this didn’t pass.”