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VOL. 127 | NO. 12 | Thursday, January 19, 2012

Suburbs Move Forward on School Districts

By Bill Dries

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If there are suburban school systems in Shelby County and they want to start classes in August 2013, when Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools merge, it will be a fast track process – just like the merger the suburbs are reacting to.

Leaders of the first suburban city to hold a public meeting on the highly anticipated set of reports from Southern Educational Strategies LLC appear encouraged and are downplaying the likelihood of a court fight to get school buildings at no cost for such a new school system.

“There’s a lot of optimism I have. I’ve got to read through it,” said Germantown Alderman Mike Palazzolo Tuesday, Jan. 17, after a work session by the city’s Mayor and Board of Aldermen with SEC leaders. “It could possibly make sense. Ultimately our citizens have to weigh in.”

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said the city’s next step is a Feb. 1 town hall meeting to gauge public reaction and political will to move to a May referendum on forming such a school system.

The city leaders will then talk about what they’ve heard at a regularly scheduled Feb. 2 and Feb. 3 retreat. A good part of the retreat will be spent “toward the question of where do we go from here,” Goldsworthy said.

“We’re going to be very busy, very fast if we are going for a May referendum,” she added citing a goal of opening schools in the new district in August 2013. That is also when the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems begins.

“August of 2013 is kind of the moment at which we can officially create our district,” Goldsworthy said. “For planning purposes, it just makes sense all the wary around that we move forward doing that at the same time the (countywide) district otherwise is formed in a whole new way.”

The May referendum is a first step and it would include the basic question of putting up either the equivalent of 15 cents on the local property tax rate or a half cent local option sales tax increase required by state law as a commitment to forming a school system.

The ballot question would likely be broader to give voters a clear idea that they are voting yes or no on forming a new school system.

Goldsworthy described “a referendum on the question of having the school district and that really is phrased about whether or not the community embraces a tax rate increase for the purpose of funding schools.”

“I also believe it could include the question on the sales tax because that does have to go to referendum and it could be a companion to the more basic question.”

If voters approve the question, however it is phrased, the next step would be to move toward elections for a school board. No superintendent for such a school system could be selected until a board is elected because the board hires the superintendent.

The general conclusion on the critical question of school buildings is the same in each of the three reports. They get the school buildings at no cost based on the transfer of schools from county to city when a city annexes territory including schools.

“The weight of legal authority says that the school buildings are held in trust for the community,” Mitchell said. “That’s the Tennessee Supreme Court ruling plus 45 years of transfer of school facilities here. There’s been no evidence of direct payment by the Memphis City Schools for any of the county schools that were taken in by annexation.”

Critics of the move toward a suburban school district, and specifically such terms for a transfer of school buildings, have argued an annexation by a city is not comparable and would not apply.

The issue goes specifically to a larger and longer standing issue about Memphis residents paying Shelby County taxes used to build county schools.

The issue was a motivating force behind the pivotal task force on single-source funding whose political collapse set the stage for the move to schools consolidation in late 2010.

The tax issue still burns brightly on all sides – brightly enough that it could obscure other parts of the reports that say a merged school district and suburban school district can co-exist and even have joint operating agreements either for schools or for services like transportation or both.

It’s a possibility Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner talked about last week before the reports were released.

And Palazzolo brought it up again this week when asked about the possibility of a court fight.

“I think this has really become more of a dialogue and a conversation as opposed to an argument over the last few months,” he said. “There’s more of an appetite in this whole region to get education right.”

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