Some weeks ago, after a mammothly attended meeting in Germantown at which sentiment for a municipal school system in that elite eastern suburb ran high, Bartlett, the more modest township that borders Memphis on its northeast edge, was due to have a similar public meeting.
Bad weather intervened, however, and that meeting wasn’t held until Thursday night, at the Bartlett Municipal Center on Stage Road. The city’s mayor, Keith McDonald, would opine several times that, given the need to preserve property values, “maybe we can’t afford not to” pay for a city-operated school system, but local sentiment for such a solution may have cooled off a bit — due to cost factors mentioned by the mayor and other speakers.
Also appearing were Shelby County Schools Board members Mike Wissman and David Reeves; Shelby County Commissioners Wyatt Bunker, Terry Roland, and Chris Thomas; and state Representatives Jim Coley and Ron Lollar. Pete Martin, Head of the Bartlett Neighborhood Association, moderated.
As McDonald noted to the audience of some 300 (compared to a turnout for the earlier meeting at Germantown Performing Arts Center of 800 or so), the costs of operating a municipal school system in the future would probably equate to the costs of doing everything else the city does just now — effectively causing a raise of 75 cents to $1 dollar on Bartlett’s current property tax rate of $1.49. “Economically speaking, the best solution would be for all or most of what is now Shelby County Schools to be a special school district,” the mayor said.
Even so, McDonald reviewed some of the particulars involved in creating a municipal district. There were some 10,703 school-age children in the greater Bartlett area (the city plus its annexation reserve), of whom 8,084 currently attended public schools, 6,271 of those within the city limits. A city school system could expect its “fair share” of state Basic Education Program (BEP) funds. One sticking point might be the cost — estimated as some $65 million — of acquiring the 11 school buildings in Bartlett.
There was considerable discussion of how a Bartlett municipal school system might acquire such infrastructure — whether from the county or the state and whether a discounted price might be available. McDonald threw cold water on the hopeful theory that the city might acquire the properties free of charge.
The uncertainties accruing to a municipal school system were such that most of the conversation at the forum, both on stage and emanating from the audience, concerned long-familiar and more general issues pertaining to the showdown between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools and to next week’s citywide referendum in Memphis on the transfer of authority for MCS to SCS.
“The best case scenario is, we could still defeat this referendum,” Wissman said. His optimism on that score was apparently not shared by many, either on or off stage, however. Much of what was said at the meeting amounted to vituperations against those — whether on the MCS Board, the City Council, or the Shelby County Commission — who were perceived to have fostered the merger movement.
Lollar talked about “loose cannons” that “don’t care about the kids” and “sue us and use our money to sue us with.” Roland fulminated about a merger-minded cabal of 10 Memphis members of the county commission (amended later to 9, in deference to Heidi Shafer, a Memphis member who normally votes with himself, Bunker, and Thomas on school-system issues.) Not only had these members presumptuously arranged to interview and appoint interim members to an all-county school board, but they had been profligate enough to engage attorney Leo Bearman and a Bearman assistant at a combined hourly rate of nearly $900.
They had even tried to pass a resolution making the commission responsible for upholding teachers’ unions, Roland said. “Even some of the crazy ones voted against that.”
Thomas reminded the crowd of the “$80 million” annually owed by Memphis city government to MCS, imputing to the Memphis City Council, which has voted to accept an MCS charter surrender, a motive of getting out from under that obligation. He expressed a hope for an injunction on March 9 against proceeding with the merger if next week’s referendum should pass.
As Roland had done, Coley spoke of the likelihood of a potential exodus from the county, similar to what busing had caused for Memphis proper. He said it would be “contemptible and shameful” if the Memphis City Council did not reverse its pro-merger vote in the event that the March 8 referendum failed.
The kindest thing said all night about any of the forces identified with the move to merge MCS with SCS came from Mayor McDonald, who acknowledged, regarding the December 20 vote by a majority on the MCS Board to surrender the system’s charter, “Quite frankly, they have the right to do that.”
The most hopeful — and novel — thing said all night, from the anti-merger point of view, came from Rep. Lollar, during a discussion of the Norris-Todd bill, passed last month in the General Assembly. The bill presumes a “yes” vote in next week’s merger referendum and mandates, among other things, a 2 ½-year waiting period, during which a 21-member “planning commission,” largely reflecting suburban interests, would be operating. At the end of the prescribed period, a merger could take place, but simultaneously prohibitions against the creations of new special or municipal districts in Shelby County would be lifted.
Lollar saw a silver lining within the silver lining. Instead of having to go about the business of passing a new private act so as to create municipal or special districts in Shelby County, the planning commission itself might be empowered to mandate one or more in fulfillment of its duties. “That may be the plan,” he said.