Politics » Politics Feature

Taking the Leap?

With school merger now a certainty, Memphis' suburbs eye their own systems.



With U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays having approved a plan for the merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools, and with all relevant local parties having signed on to a court-approved memorandum of understanding, much attention is now focused on the long-range prospect of new municipal school districts in the suburbs as of September 2013, when the MCS-SCS merger is completed.

Though Mays has so far withheld ruling on that aspect of the Norris-Todd legislation enacted in February, the prospect of new special school districts is explicitly enabled by the bill, which provides the basic scaffolding for the merger plan approved by Mays. In any case, concrete plans for creating independent municipal school systems are being advanced in at least three suburban communities: Germantown, Collierville, and Bartlett.

The Flyer last week asked Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald three questions concerning the likelihood of Bartlett's creating its own school system:

Flyer: On a scale of zero to 10, with zero representing "no chance at all" and 10 representing a "lead-pipe cinch," what number would you assign to the likelihood of Bartlett's trying to have its own municipal schools system in the fall of 2013?

McDonald: Without a lawsuit, without someone challenging us in court, eight or nine. If we have challenges from outside, folks who for whatever reason don't want us to do that, then obviously getting to 2013 might be delayed due to court action.

Flyer: Much of the discussion inside your city about Bartlett's being able to afford its own municipal school system in the fall of 2013 has concerned the hope that existing school buildings and other infrastructure could be acquired by a city system either free or relatively cheap. Wouldn't that possibility be impeded by litigation from Memphis on the grounds that taxes from Memphis residents helped pay for that infrastructure?

McDonald: We don't know the answer to that, either. It is an impediment. How serious it is is another question, because I think that reasonable people can sit down and come up with a reasonable answer to that. Certain people keep saying in the press, "Memphis paid for those schools." Well, they didn't pay for all of them. We've been paying county taxes out in our communities as long as Memphis has, and that money goes in a split-the-needs basis. So for every dollar that was spent in the Shelby County Schools, three dollars went to Memphis, which was in and of itself supposed to be the split. So that meant that the money that was spent out here theoretically, that was our money. And Memphis got their own.

So I don't buy this idea that Memphis paid for our schools. Did we all pay in the same pot? Yes, but it got divided out by population already. They got funds to build inside Memphis. We got, based on our school population, what's ours. So why aren't those schools available to us just like they were to Memphis?

Flyer: It is taken for granted that Germantown and Collierville, both relatively wealthy communities, can afford the additional tax burden that a municipally operated system would require. Bartlett, though strongly middle-class, doesn't have as stout a revenue base. Would that fact make it relatively more difficult for you to have your own schools system?

McDonald: Because we're so large, we can probably do it as easily as they can, just because we have so many more people. So, while our cost-of-housing average and our income levels are slightly different, we have 54,000 to their 45,000 [an approximate figure for Germantown], and just the income that's produced by that large an amount of people would make it a very doable thing for us.

Bartlett is one of four suburban municipalities — the others are Collierville, Lakeland, and Arlington — that showed significant growth in the decade between 2000 and 2010.

According to figures furnished by the office of planning and development, Bartlett's population grew from 40,543 to 54,613 in that period — a growth rate of 34.7 percent. By comparison, Collierville grew from 31,872 to 43,965, with a slightly better growth rate of 37.9 percent. And by contrast, Germantown's population remained relatively stable, having gone from 37,348 to 38,844, a rate of only 4 percent.      

It needs to be remembered that, even should the Big Three suburbs of Memphis — Bartlett, Germantown, and Collierville — end up paying out of pocket to maintain their own independent school systems, they will not be exempted from the general tax on Shelby County residents to maintain what by fall 2013 will be an all-county consolidated school system under the provisions of Norris-Todd, the ruling of Judge Mays, and the terms of the recent memorandum of understanding.

So, if Bartlett, for example, reckons that its sheer numbers are enough to justify — and pay for — what could be a hefty new bill for education of its own citizens, it will still be paying for the education of children elsewhere in the county, whether these be in Woodstock, Eads, or New Chicago.

This double-duty syndrome — which residents of Memphis proper have long been familiar with — already weighs heavy on citizens of some of the other suburban communities that are faced with the decision of what to do when the moment of school merger comes.

One such is Arlington, a near suburb to the east of Memphis which, census figures show, has increased its population almost four-fold in the last decade — from 2,560 in the census of 2000 to 11,517 in that of 2010. And when the town held a forum recently for what looks to be a hotly contested race to succeed Mayor Russell Wiseman, all the candidates for that job, as well as the several who were seeking aldermanic positions, seemed to endorse in principle the idea of separating from what they saw as the troubling monolith of the forthcoming all-county school system.

But, as one candidate, longtime alderman and Vice Mayor Hugh Lamar, said after the forum, it remains something of a challenge for middling-sized communities like his own to try to go their own way in public school education. Lamar, who had made a point during the forum of stressing that Arlington's growth had been largely due to the quality of its schools, suggested that even a stratospheric new property tax earmarked for schools could raise no more annually than $1 million or so — a modest sum with which to finance an independent school system.

The relatively new Arlington High School, financed in the last decade through rural school bonds, is an institution that, more than most, could justify Bartlett mayor McDonald's optimism about acquisition of infrastructure. But the $31 million in bonds that paid for the school continue to be an obligation for county taxpayers.

Come what may, the Arlington Board of Aldermen was scheduled to meet this week to consider a $54,000 educational consultant contract with Southern Educational Strategies. The aldermanic boards of Germantown and Collierville have similar agendas with S.E.S. at meetings scheduled for next week.

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