Memphis school start delayed over funding issue

MEMPHIS, Tenn Wed Jul 20, 2011 7:32pm EDT

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MEMPHIS, Tenn (Reuters) - Memphis could see a late start to its school year after the school board, in a move that sent officials scrambling for a solution on Wednesday, voted to delay classes until it gets $55 million in city funds.

The 103,000 students in the public school system are scheduled to begin classes on August 8th. The board voted for the delay on Tuesday.

"We have to take this seriously," Memphis city councilman Shea Flinn said. "But we are not going to shortchange them. The saber-rattling is unnecessary."

He said he hoped a resolution would be reached on Thursday when city council and board members are scheduled to meet.

The city school system has a budget of about $1.2 billion from federal, state, local and private sources. The city of Memphis contributes less than 10 percent of the school system's budget.

Memphis residents also pay taxes for the Shelby County school system outside the city limits, which is wealthier and higher performing than the city system.

The funding issue is complicated by the fact that the Memphis board voted eight months ago to surrender its charter and be taken over by the Shelby County school system.

Court challenges and countersuits were filed, and the matter is now in the hands of a federal judge in Memphis who is expected to rule as early as the end of July.

If the judge rules that the city system is dissolved, he might also rule that Memphis does not have to make its annual schools contribution.

The city council earlier this year passed a property tax increase to cover its contribution in case the judge rules the funding must continue for some period.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said if the schools didn't open on time next month, it wouldn't be the fault of City Hall. He expressed optimism that a funding solution would be worked out.

Asked if he was surprised by school board action Tuesday night, the mayor paused several seconds before answering, "No. No, I was not," he said. "Did I like it? No."

(Writing and reporting by John Branston; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston)

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