Now that both houses of the Tennessee General assembly have passed legislation enabling new municipal districts to be created on a statewide basis, it would appear that Shelby County's six suburban municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington — will finally have the opportunity to pursue their vision of municipal school independence.
Beyond the certainties that Governor Bill Haslam will sign the municipal-schools bill into law and that the six suburban governments will set up and pass new referenda, there remain obstacles. U.S. district judge Hardy Mays may be asked to vet the bill just passed via new or existing litigation (though the bill's statewide application appears to spare it the taint of special legislation that caused Mays to rule against last year's version of municipal-schools legislation).
More problematically, the issue of whether new municipal districts in Shelby County will tend to foster resegregation is part of the Shelby County Commission's standing litigation against the municipal-schools process, and Mays still has the option of holding trial on that point.
And there are practical matters — the question of school buildings being the most obvious one. Both the particulars of the new bill and the realities of the calendar make it impossible for new municipal school districts to come into being before the school year that begins in August 2014, and between now and then, the matter of how and at what cost the suburban municipalities will avail themselves of the buildings and other infrastructure now belonging to Shelby County must be resolved.
Still and all, it now seems a given that there will indeed be municipal school districts in suburban Shelby County, probably as soon as August of next year.
Even before all the smoke clears, it is possible to enumerate some of the things that have been accomplished during the two and a half years of conflict and maneuver and cross-purpose regarding the public schools of Memphis and Shelby County.
First, the anxieties regarding a possible loss of funding that prompted the Memphis City Schools board to dissolve itself are now disposed of. Until its charter surrender in December 2010, MCS was technically a special school district whose board majority feared that a Republican-dominated legislature would convert Shelby County Schools into another special district with no obligation to share its school tax levies with city schools. That danger has now passed. The old MCS has meanwhile morphed, through merger, into the official county district, which, by state law, can draw upon the education fund created by the whole county tax base. Back then, Memphis residents paid an extra tax to sustain their city schools. No more. Henceforth, it will be the residents of suburban schools who pay the extra school taxes.
And, even during the halcyon days of the old Shelby County Schools system, a few of the municipalities hankered to have more control over their schools. Now, they will.
City-county school unity has apparently proved to be a chimera. But, oddly enough, to adapt an old proverb, the ill wind of discord may have blown everybody some good.