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VOL. 125 | NO. 226 | Friday, November 19, 2010

MCS Leaders Talk Over Charter Surrender Options

Opinions Differ On Response To Special School District Legislation

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Schools officials seem to be of one mind that another try by Shelby County schools officials for special school district status would not be in the best interest of the city school system or city taxpayers.

But the group of MCS leaders that met Thursday evening was split on how best to respond to the coming legislation in Nashville next year or whether to respond at all.

The responses advocated at the meeting ranged from talks with Shelby County schools officials to a quick move to put a city school charter surrender on the next available ballot for city voters to consider.

Such a surrender would consolidate the county’s two public school systems and would be a checkmate to the coming special school district legislation just as the legislation would end any possibility of school system consolidation.

MCS Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash and his staff cited a 2008 University of Memphis study showing special school district status in which county schools also had taxing authority would create a county school system able to tax areas outside Memphis just for that school system. County residents outside Memphis now pay a large and critical share of the local property tax revenue that goes to the city school system as well as the county school system.

Shelby County government is the largest local funder of the Memphis school system and the only local funder of the county school system.

With taxing authority for the county school system, that would change into what amount to two taxing districts, one for each school system, with no overlap and no three to one funding split based on average daily attendance of each school system that favors the larger Memphis school system.

Under a scenario in which the Memphis school system remained a special school district but its school board was also granted taxing authority, the U of M study concludes there would be the same effect – higher taxes within the city of Memphis to provide the same level of funding for city schools from a smaller tax base.

No bill for special school district status has been proposed for the Tennessee legislature’s next session which begins in January. But such legislation has been pushed by the county school system for the last decade. It’s most ardent proponents and opponents have been within the Shelby County legislative delegation to Nashville.

Shelby County school board chairman David Pickler has said another proposal is coming. And he believes it has a much better chance with the larger 64 vote Republican majority in the state house as a result of the Nov. 2 legislative elections across the state.

Republican members of the Shelby County delegation are expected to sponsor the bills which would not be private acts only applying to Shelby County, but would give the special district option to county school systems across the state.

One bill would lift the legislature’s ban on the creation of any new special school districts, enacted in the early 1980s. A companion bill would make it possible for county school systems across the state to approve their own special district status.

Pickler has said he doesn’t believe such proposals would necessarily mean a loss of funding for the city school system. He specifically disagrees with the findings of the University of Memphis study.

And he said any taxing authority for the school board would depend on approval by the Tennessee legislature of a tax rate or could leave the ultimate approval of a tax rate for education with the Shelby County Commission. Pickler says he’s willing to negotiate on precise terms of the bill with the Memphis school board.

But board member Tomeka Hart said she’s not in the mood to talk about a move that Pickler has said is designed to freeze boundaries between the two school systems and cement the separateness of the two school systems.

“Since I’ve been on this board we’ve been talking. … I’m tired of talking. We keep talking and every year, they get closer and closer,” she said. “We won’t be able to afford the system that we have now. We won’t be able to afford all these schools. We won’t be able to afford all the staff we have. … We know what’s going to happen. We’re going to be Detroit.”

She also said city school administrators need to be clearer about the impact of special school district legislation than they were at Thursday’s meeting featuring a power point presentation that was long in getting to the fiscal bottom line.

“I reject all contention that somehow the whole issue is we just need to talk to Shelby County schools,” Hart said. “I’m really sick and tired of people acting like there is something else going on other than what is going on.”

Hart advocated the city school board voting to give up its charter, putting the charter surrender on the ballot for Memphis voters and if it passes with voters, effectively consolidating the two public school systems.

She also said it should be put on the ballot as quickly as possible.

Memphis school board member Jeff Warren, however, argued that would only stoke already heightened fears of school consolidation in Shelby County outside Memphis and accelerate an exodus from the county as well as the city by families with school age children.

“Politically, I don’t think we can pull option #3 in time,” he said referring to the consolidation gambit.

Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn referred to it as a “nuclear option.”

“It would be a race,” he said. “Time is not on our side.”

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