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VOL. 128 | NO. 231 | Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Schools Deals Get Pushback From Some Commissioners

By Bill Dries

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The first dissent from the idea that the suburban schools agreements are a good deal in which no side got everything it wanted began when the six sets of talks, which began in June, went public.

It came during the Shelby County Commission’s votes Friday, Nov. 22, to approve the tentative agreements with Lakeland and Arlington.

“You are ratifying a plan whereby, in most cases, 81.5 percent of the county’s population that paid for these school buildings will not be able to attend the schools that their tax dollars paid for,” said former Shelby County Schools board member Martavius Jones, referring to Memphis’ share of Shelby County’s population. “You would also be endorsing a separatist and secessionist movement of the (suburban) municipalities. … By endorsing this plan, you would be approving the most ill-advised real estate transaction since the Louisiana Purchase.”

“There are considerable contributions ... that will continue to be made by the suburban taxpayers to the whole system.”

–Mike Ritz
Shelby County Commissioner

But Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz, the only commissioner involved directly in the talks, countered that Jones’ calculation is off. He said it doesn’t reflect how much of the county property tax is paid by those in the city and those outside the city.

“The property taxes paid by parts of the county are unrelated to the population,” Ritz said, adding that property owners outside the city of Memphis “pay an extraordinary share of property tax in Shelby County.”

“There are considerable contributions … that will continue to be made by the suburban taxpayers to the whole system,” Ritz said. “The whole (schools) system within about a month is going to include seven school districts, not one. All the school districts will benefit on an ADA (average daily attendance) basis. An inordinate share of that burden comes from that part of the county that is not in Memphis.”

Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks was the only “no” vote on the Arlington pact and abstained on the Lakeland agreement.

“I am not in support of us continuing this lawsuit,” she said after the two votes. “But I do not want to put my constituents at a disadvantage.”

Brooks specifically did not agree with the commission walking away from its third-party claim in the federal court case, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. The commission’s claim states suburban school districts would racially “resegregate” public education in Memphis.

Brooks said she would have preferred some kind of arbitration overseen by the court instead of the talks outside court among attorneys representing all sides.

She said she asked about the resegregation claim’s fate during the commission’s closed conference with its attorneys earlier in the week.

The settlement agreement ends the third-party claim, with the commission specifically agreeing that it will not refile the claim.

Brooks pushed attorney Lori Patterson about the possibility of a private citizen pursuing such a legal claim apart from the commission.

“I wouldn’t have advised you to accept the agreement if I thought you would be sued,” she told Brooks.

Patterson also said she didn’t want to give advice, at least publicly, on if she thought the commission could be sued.

Commission chairman James Harvey agreed, saying it would “open a can of worms” and could encourage someone to file such a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Ritz said most of the discussions in the weeks leading up to the word Monday, Nov. 18, of an agreement in principle was by phone among all of the parties and their attorneys.

Shelby County Schools wasn’t involved in talks between the commission and the suburban leaders until late August. That’s when there was enough “substance in place” that the commission and suburban leaders went to the school system, according to Ritz.

Those talks between the suburbs and Shelby County Schools were about the real estate. What started as a recommendation by superintendent Dorsey Hopson for leases of the schools began quitclaim deeds for the property in the agreements.

Several of the suburban mayors have said the talks collapsed numerous times in the journey, including in the day before the Arlington and Lakeland agreements, the first two, went to the commission.

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