Ritz: School Finances Remain Complex

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz said Tuesday, July 23, the commission is unlikely to increase funding to the countywide school system in the near future.

Ritz spoke at the Memphis Rotary Club the day after the commission approved a $4.38 county property tax rate that includes $20 million in new funding for the schools – the first increase in county funding to public education since 2005.

But Ritz said there will probably be pressure from suburban citizens and leaders if the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County form their own districts.

RITZ

“There will be a lot of pressure on (the commission), I think from those suburbs to get the county to raise its property tax and money to send to the schools so the suburbs won’t have to,” Ritz said. “I believe there will be push back from Memphis.”

Ritz contends the suburban school districts will cost the six towns and cities more than they are projecting.

The earliest the suburban leaders have talked about opening their school districts is in the 2014-2015 school year, and they have vehemently denied Ritz’s numbers.

The existence of the school districts would change the way county funding for local public education is distributed. It would be split among the various public school systems based on average daily attendance.

That was how county funding was split between the old city and county school systems that gave way to the consolidated school system July 1 with the start of the new fiscal year. The suburban school systems would mean a new seven-way split.

Ritz also said the smaller of the towns and cities might not open a year from now.

“I was hoping that the three smaller suburbs delay a year or two of operations. I think at the end of the day, especially Millington – possibly Arlington and Lakeland – might decide they would be fine where they are,” he said. “I don’t see the big three suburbs politically getting to the point where they put the toothpaste back in the tube. It would be political suicide out there to run for mayor and board of aldermen and not support municipal schools.”

But Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman said last week that he and leaders in Lakeland have been talking about sharing a superintendent for their two separate school systems and seeing if Collierville might join in such an arrangement.

Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner has said he thinks citizens in his town favor having their own superintendent at least for now.

Ritz, who lives in Germantown, acknowledged there is a lot of sentiment in the suburbs to go through with the municipal school districts that voters in each of the six towns and cities approved earlier this month in referendums.

“There are lots of financial complications in school financing,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotional rhetoric in this thing. … People lose friends, gain friends. Those of you who live in Memphis may not recognize that as much. I live in the suburbs and it is pretty intense.”

Ritz was targeted for a short-lived recall campaign earlier this year because of his criticism of the financial projections of running such school districts and the County Commission’s effort to oppose the school districts in federal court.

Ritz leaves office at the end of August 2014 as he hits the term limits for county commissioners of two consecutive terms in office. Ritz said he has no plans to run for Shelby County mayor in the 2014 elections either.

Meanwhile, some on the Shelby County Commission would like to fill more than just one seat on the countywide school board.

In U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, the commission is seeking the authority to appoint six new school board members to go with the seven existing ones who will remain on the board after Sept. 1. That is when the school board slims down from its current 23 members.

But even if there is a court decision from U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on the issue of a 13-member school board instead of a seven-member school board, it won’t affect whoever succeeds school board member Reginald Porter.

“Our school board appointment is unrelated to whatever comes out of the court,” Ritz said. “We replace him from the district he was elected from, and that’s an old district.”

Porter resigned this week from the schools board in advance of Tuesday’s work session. He will become chief of staff for the countywide school district effective Aug. 1.

His replacement will serve out the remainder of the four-year term Porter was elected to in 2012, which runs to the end of August 2016.