The beautiful Germantown Performing Arts Center was nearly full Monday night for a town hall meeting with the mayor and board of aldermen on city and county school consolidation.
There were at least 600 people in attendance. Employees counted them with clickers. The meeting lasted a little over two hours and was orderly and efficient, with frequent rounds of applause for speakers urging formation of a Germantown municipal school district as opposed to a Shelby County Special School District.
"Do not wait," said Elaine West, PTA president at Dogwood Elementary School. "Go. Go strong, go fast."
There were no protesters, no signs, no groups wearing T-shirts with slogans, and only a handful of black people. There was no booing of unpopular opinions and ideas, probably because there weren't any. No one said a favorable word about consolidation in any form or mentioned a merger proponent by name. Those who spoke were divided on preparing to set up a Germantown school system in two or three years or doing it now.
Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy and chief administrator Patrick Lawton stood behind a podium on one side of the stage. The five aldermen sat behind a table to their left. They did not speak, except for Mark Billingsley, who said the board supports Goldsworthy.
County school board president David Pickler was not there, or at least was not on stage. There were no representatives from the Memphis school board, which voted to surrender its charter subject to a Memphis referendum on March 8th. State senator Mark Norris was in Nashville. His "go-slow" bill setting up a 21-member transition committee and a 2013 start date for a possible merger is on a fast-track.
The board "could very well be dominated by what we might consider suburban folks," Goldworthy said, and "it could be a lot worse" if Memphians get to pick it.
Shelby County commissioners Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, and Heidi Shafer attended. Shafer got an ovation when she said people should ask themselves "if by trying to make things more equal we are not making them equally miserable."
Goldsworthy and Lawton told the crowd that there would have to be a change in state law to allow formation of a municipal school district and that is unlikely at this time. A special school district has a better chance, but Goldsworthy said it will probably end up in litigation and might leave Germantown open to future consolidation with Memphis. A municipal system consisting of the eight public schools in Germantown would cost at least 42 cents more in the property tax rate and possibly exclude approximately 4,000 students who attend those schools but live outside the city limits.
"Good question," Goldsworthy said when asked if those students would be displaced. "I don't have an answer to that right now."
There are about 8,500 students in Germantown schools, including Germantown High School and Houston High School. About 40 percent of the school-age children in Germantown attend private schools.
One speaker got a laugh and a round of applause when he said "this is proof that there is no correlation between wealth and intelligence."
About 30 people spoke during a question-and-answer session. Most of the comments and questions were about formation of a municipal school district. What would it cost? (At least 42 cents on the tax rate to make up for lost federal funding plus acquiring the buildings somehow.) Could Germantown take the schools by power of eminent domain? (Unclear, but it is "an incredibly interesting prospect" said Goldsworthy.) Might private school students return to a municipal Germantown system? ("Not likely," said Goldsworthy.) Would there have to be a referendum? (Yes, if taxing authority was part of the deal, said Lawton) Could Collierville and other suburbs do the same thing? (It's early, but there has been talk about it, Goldsworthy said.) Would the aldermen go on record in favor of munis right now? (After a tentative affirmative show of hands, Billingsley said, "Please don't go home thinking that we are divided.")
Looking ahead, Goldsworthy said the suburban strategy should be hoping that the Memphis referendum on March 8th fails. "This is not a slam dunk," she said, adding that little lobbying of Memphians wouldn't hurt. While a municipal system has obvious appeal, suburbs trying to buy school buildings would likely be dealing with a reconstituted Shelby County school board representing Memphians.
"It's very possible we would not be dealing with a willing seller," Goldsworthy said. "This is the 8,000-pound gorilla down the road."
Suburban influence is not as overwhelming as it seemed at Monday's meeting. The suburbs, Goldsworthy said, control only three seats on the 13-member county commission and face legislative obstacles and other problems in Nashville. Hence Germantown's sentiment to control its own destiny and leave non-residents, whether they are Memphians or outsiders attending Germantown schools, to fend for themselves.
One audience member suggested letting the cat out of the bag on a municipal district might lead the transition committee to discount Germantown's sincerity as far as a 2013 merger. Goldsworthy and Lawton repeatedly cautioned the crowd not to get ahead of itself, but the mayor could not conceal her personal enthusiasm. A municipal district would be and blend of "best practices" and "unlike any other."