The outgoing county mayor who oversees school funding in Memphis called Tuesday for his successor to invest more in pre-school and classes that focus on science, math, and technology.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said both needs should be prioritized if the county that includes one of the nation’s most impoverished cities is to land more high-wage jobs and keep its young people out of prison.
In his last State of the County address, the two-term Republican mayor and former sheriff touted the county’s annual contribution to preschool classrooms that reached $3 million in recent years. But, he said, it’s still not enough, especially as the expiration approaches of a $70 million federal grant paying for pre-K classrooms in Shelby County and Nashville.
“Failure to invest in proven prevention programs will result in short-term quick fixes with little lasting value,” he told members of the Rotary Club of Memphis. “Head Start, pre-kindergarten, and K-12 education, along with intervention initiatives like Second Chance and re-entry programs, are proven successes worthy of community support.”
Luttrell’s office presents an education budget for county commissioners’ approval every year. He has advocated aggressively for Shelby County Schools to pay down its retiree benefits obligation and for more state funding for local education, but he did not address either issue on Tuesday.
Shelby County’s education landscape has experienced major changes since Luttrell was elected county mayor in 2010. A few months after his election, the board of Memphis City Schools voted to give up its charter in response to the likelihood of the county system siphoning off its tax dollars to fund suburban schools. That left Shelby County government as basically the sole funding agent for local education. Also, the state-run Achievement School District began taking over Memphis schools in 2012, further complicating the distribution of money for schools. And just a year after the merger, the county splintered into seven school systems.
Increasing access to early childhood education and certification in science and technology related careers has been a priority for Shelby County Schools this year. The district is preparing a proposal to revamp its career and technical education programs to attract more students and has worked with City Council and child care nonprofit Porter-Leath toward creating a spot for every child to attend preschool.
Luttrell noted that Shelby County Schools, which is slightly bigger than the former city district, has one of the highest funding rates per student in Tennessee, yet has many of the state’s worst performing schools.
“To be clear, this is not an indictment or the sole responsibility of Shelby County Schools. We all bear responsibility as parents, teachers, elected officials, as taxpayers, as the faith-based community,” he said. “It is with the cornerstone of a good, quality education that we begin to turn the tide in those areas of crime, poverty, and poor population health.”
Without that foundation, he said, more students will filter into the county’s juvenile justice system that’s now under federal oversight. (Luttrell has attempted to end federal monitoring before all goals are met.)
“The oversimplified, but not untrue, explanation is that if we do not fund schools we must fund prisons,” he said. “Let’s keep innovating and finding opportunities to keep our kids in school, out of the justice system, and towards a better future.”
Luttrell’s term expires in August. Attending his final address were two candidates to replace him: county trustee David Lenoir and county commissioner Terry Roland.
You can read Luttrell’s full remarks below: