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VOL. 126 | NO. 28 | Thursday, February 10, 2011

Timing Increasingly a Factor in Schools Standoff

By Bill Dries

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The schools consolidation bill crafted by Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville has had a huge impact on the far-flung local discussion and debate over a possible consolidation of the county’s two public school systems.

The bill, to be voted on in the House Thursday, hasn’t changed the wording that will appear on the ballot for city voters starting with early voting on Feb. 16. But it would change a much more critical factor in all things political – the timing.

If Memphis voters approve the Memphis City Schools charter surrender and effectively consolidate MCS with county schools, the actual merger wouldn’t happen until August 2013 under Norris’ bill.

That takes much of the starch out of a move by some on the Shelby County Commission to accelerate its once a decade redrawing of district lines to put a countywide – and presumably majority Memphis – school board in place as soon as possible after the March 8 election day.

As that move has slowed, the exploration of a municipal school district in one or more of the county’s six suburban towns and cities has accelerated.

Germantown city administrator Patrick Lawton said the move to a Germantown municipal school district might be done with nothing more from Nashville than the passage of Norris’ bill.

“The city’s private act charter does allow us to operate schools,” Lawton said. “So, that’s a hurdle we wouldn’t have to change at the state level. It would be simply a matter of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen passing an ordinance that says we are going to operate schools.”

Lawton, however, is cautious about the fine print of any final version of the legislation.

“The new legislation if it passes, it might have language in there that says … you still may have to go back to the General Assembly and get a private act for your school – for your municipal school district,” he added. “That’s up in the air.”

And Lawton said there appears to be nothing stopping Germantown leaders from doing what the County Commission has discussed doing – forming its own planning commission the day after March 8 to begin planning a municipal school district for August 2013.

“Our understanding it doesn’t preclude us if the board wanted to … to put in place a planning commission that would do the leg work to craft a municipal school system and what it looks like,” Lawton added.

He foresees such a group working with a schools consolidation planning commission established in Norris’ bill.

Shelby County and state per pupil funding of $8,439 would remain the same, according to Lawton’s calculations. But he doesn’t believe federal funding for at-risk students would be continued.

Those assumptions leave Germantown leaders with a 22-cent increase in the existing rate of $1.42 per $100 of assessed value to cover just operating costs.

The wild card in the tax calculations beyond that is the cost of a Germantown municipal school district buying the eight county schools within the city.

The net book value is $28 million. But the insured value is $132 million. That’s a big variable for a city with a triple A bond rating and bonded indebtedness of $24 million.

Because the purchase of the schools would be a one-time only expense, it would be financed through bonds.

“Our triple A bond rating is important to Germantown in terms of maintaining that when we issue debt for other projects,” Lawton said. “We are going to be extremely careful to not compromise that and violate our financial policies. That will all have to be taken into consideration.”

Lawton acknowledged a municipal school district taking in Collierville and/or Bartlett is a possibility.

It would spread the operating cost over a broader tax base. But there would be more schools to operate and more schools to buy.

The establishment of a local education tax rate in Germantown would require the approval of Germantown voters in a referendum.

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