Old Schools Questions Resurface in Germantown

By Bill Dries

The questions are ones Germantown leaders faced from the outset as they began weighing their options after the March 2011 Memphis referendum vote approving a merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

Germantown High School is one of the city’s “three Gs” — along with Germantown Middle and Elementary — at the center of debate.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Questions surrounding who would attend a school system within the boundaries of a suburban city – a school system funded by taxpayers in that town along with taxpayers across the county and governed by an school board elected by that suburb’s voters – was posed in some of the other suburbs.

But it wasn’t as sustained in those places as it was in Germantown, where the memory of controversial changes made in 2008 by the legacy Shelby County Schools board to Germantown-area attendance zones was still fresh.

Part of the controversy was students being zoned out of Germantown High School in particular, revealing a phrase that has surfaced numerous times in recent weeks, indicating a political fault line in which Poplar Avenue divides the city.

South of Poplar is the older part of the city and the location of Germantown Elementary, Middle and High Schools – known as the “three Gs” – which Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson has recommended Shelby County Schools keep.

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy’s first reaction in August 2011 to the federal court ruling that same month upholding the schools merger was: “Unless and until any municipal districts are formed, it is imperative that the perspectives and needs of our student constituencies and taxpayers be an integral part of the system’s design.”

That was Goldsworthy’s written and public response to the 2011 ruling by U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

It was early in the reformation of public education, which has since taken on much more specificity and shape, not to mention included some dramatic changes to state law.

The latest chapter is a resurfacing of the old questions and a renewed divide over what the answers should be now that much has been resolved legally in the last two years.

What is still in transition is the move to a Germantown Schools board elected last week and still to take office, even as city leaders are floating proposals for negotiations with the countywide school system.

In the difference of opinion, some of Goldsworthy’s initial thoughts via email to a constituent have been leaked.

The first of the emails leaked last week – an email from Goldsworthy to a constituent and copied to Germantown aldermen – was sent a month before Mays ruled in 2011.

In responding to a constituent who urged Germantown leaders to immediately separate from the consolidated district, Goldsworthy pointed to what she termed Germantown’s “slightly peculiar situation.”

The situation is that of the 8,700 students in the eight public schools within Germantown’s borders, 4,500 live in Germantown. The remaining 4,200 are from unincorporated Shelby County, including the annexation reserve area of Memphis, and other suburban cities.

“In forming a municipal school district supported by the taxes of city residents, we would expect to restrict access to Germantown youngsters,” Goldsworthy wrote in the July 2011 email. “It is possible that we could admit nonresidents by payment of a tuition equal to the city school taxes paid per student. However, if we are successful in claiming all of the campuses, the consolidated district would have to figure out where to place the displaced 4,200 non-Germantown students who are unlikely to want to pay tuition to go to the same school they attended free the year before.”

Just more than two years later, Hopson has recommended that the countywide school board place many of those 4,200 or so students in Germantown Elementary, Middle and High Schools.

It’s a scenario that several of the suburban mayors thought was a possibility.

That included Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald.

“I’d been saying for months that the possibility existed that a couple of our schools might not be included (in a Bartlett school district) for that very reason,” McDonald said earlier this month on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “As it turns out, there were schools around our perimeters that those children could go to.”

Hopson, who, along with Shelby County Schools legal counsel Valerie Speakman, will be negotiating for the school system, has also made it clear that he and Speakman will be negotiating with the just-elected school boards once they are sworn in.