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VOL. 127 | NO. 162 | Monday, August 20, 2012

After the Vote

Plan emerges to untangle complex schools situation while unanswered questions remain

By Bill Dries

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As 400 supporters of municipal school districts rallied just off the Arlington town square in July, conversations about the ballot outcome turned to one question – how Federal Judge Hardy Mays would rule in the legal challenge to the state law governing the establishment of a municipal school district.

Ava Ciaramitaro, 9, and sister Angelina, 6, hold up signs encouraging a “yes” vote for a Germantown Municipal School District during early voting outside New Bethel Baptist Church in Germantown. The election in Germantown and five other municipalities created separate school districts from the merged system between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools that begins in 2013. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The possibility remains that Mays could wipe clean the results of six sets of referendums in the six suburban towns and cities approving the establishment of such districts.

But with the elections results in, a framework for a second historic transition in Shelby County public education is taking shape.

“There will be a few new wrinkles none of us see now,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell told The Memphis News editorial board in the gap between early voting and election day.

Luttrell anticipated there would be lawsuits over the issue of school buildings in the municipalities. Countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel was hopeful there could be negotiations on the issue without a lawsuit.

“There seems to have developed a centrist attitude on any issue. We don’t have a lot of 12-11 votes,” Orgel said of the 23-member board. “I think we’ve got a group of centrists in.”

But all a lawsuit takes is one board member with an attorney and the consensus candidate for the board member most likely to file such a lawsuit contesting a less than fair market transfer of school buildings is Martavius Jones, based on numerous statements by Jones in the last year.

“Under no circumstances am I in favor of deeding or transferring property rights that all Shelby Countians have paid for to just a select part of the population of Shelby County,” Jones said again this month after the elections. “If I have to do it as an individual citizen – not as a member of the board – I will. I’ll fight it. I intend to fight it.”

Meanwhile, an arrangement on some school buildings that is more about control than ownership is emerging.

Take the 11 public schools within the city limits of Bartlett.

“The unified school system is going to need to send children to one or two of those schools,” said Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald. “Do they just go ahead and run two schools – an elementary and a middle school? Or do they let us run them and they send their children there? That’s part of the negotiation that has to go on.”

That’s a different possibility than the plan each of the six suburban cities had for forming a municipal school district that included children living in unincorporated Shelby County – outside any city limits for any city. That would require a cooperative agreement between the countywide school board and a municipal school board.

McDonald has done some soundings of countywide school board sentiment and he doesn’t think there’s enough support on the board for it.

“There seems to be a resistance to the idea of the children that are currently going to those schools staying there,” he said. “Then there will still have to be some kind of negotiation to see if they want to run those schools for those children. Do they run one of the elementary schools and one of the middle schools or do they send their children to schools that we run.”

Orgel points to the three schools in Germantown – middle, elementary and high school that all bear the name of the city. The majority of the students in those three schools do not live within the borders of Germantown.

“You might have a case where Shelby County Schools … says: ‘These 400 kids, it doesn’t make sense for you to have a school for them. Why doesn’t Shelby County continue to educate them?’” Orgel said on the WKNO television program “Behind The Headlines.” “The possibility exists that inside some of these municipalities you could have a school that is a Shelby County school but it’s in the Germantown city limits and the kids go there.”

It’s a scenario Jones agrees with.

“That’s how I see it shaking out. If that were the case … to me that creates the least amount of disruption for everybody,” he said before adding an important condition that goes to control. “But the (countywide) district also has the ability to manage its enrollment – to manage where the students attend.”

Meanwhile, an anticipated gap between revenues and expenses of at least $57 million for the new consolidated school system has brought back to life the idea of a countywide sales tax increase as one option to increase county government funding of the new school system and close the gap.

And that would be a complication for the municipal school districts formed by voters who in five of the six suburban cities approved their own half-cent sales tax hikes to provide the minimum amount of local funding required by the state to form their school districts.

A countywide tax hike would “trump” that, acknowledged Luttrell who cautioned that he is considering several other options, including a shift in the property tax rate without a tax hike or a property tax hike. But the sales tax hike countywide means less revenue to operate the municipal school districts at the most basic level. The Shelby County Commission passed a resolution earlier this year announcing its intent to forego such a tax hike.

“They can always pass a resolution at anytime that would counter the previous resolution,” Luttrell said. “The way I interpreted that particular resolution is it remains in effect until it is rescinded or another resolution comes forward.”

The alternative for the suburban leaders would be for the boards of aldermen to approve a property tax hike to make up the lost revenue.

Voters in the suburban towns and cities, even Collierville where the numbers and percentages of those for the school districts and the sales tax hike were the highest, voted in lower numbers and percentages for the sales tax hike than they did for the formation of the school districts.

Bartlett has more flexibility on the matter, which also gives it some options over several scenarios.

“In our case, which is somewhat unique, we have enough expectation of funds coming in from the sales tax revenue to more than cover the cost of running our schools for several years,” McDonald said. “If we had given it all to education and our sales tax revenue declined, we’d have to come up with the difference out of property taxes. We didn’t want to get in that position. We could set aside that additional money for capital projects that might be helpful to schools, safety issues, certainly legal fees for the time being.”

Orgel, McDonald and Luttrell each said separately that they don’t see a need for more school buildings to be the result of a coexistence between the countywide school system and a set of municipal school districts.

But Luttrell is talking about the option of a countywide sales tax hike with a bottom line impact on municipal schools because of a funding gap faced by the consolidated school system – not as a reaction to the existence of municipal schools.

The motive doesn’t change the possible revenue impact. But it does demonstrate a broader distribution of the complexities of running multiple public education systems in the same county.

In making the case to voters for the sales tax hike, McDonald encountered hesitation and opposition along lines that any school board member, mayor, county commissioner and Memphis City Council member over the last four years can relate to no matter where they stand on the matter of municipal school districts.

“Some people are just not going to vote for a tax increase period. That’s just their feeling. … The other is just a hard time that we have had and continue to have in explaining maintenance of effort,” he said.

“We just have a lot of citizens who cannot understand how the state could mandate that we can’t set our budget from year to year based on what we see as the need – that if we spent that much last year we have to spend that much next year.”

Millington faces the most complicated path to a municipal school district even without a countywide sales tax hike. In the unofficial vote totals there, voters approved the school district question but defeated the sales tax hike by three votes.

Millington’s board of aldermen voted to file suit in Chancery Court to contest the results if the Shelby County Election Commission’s certified vote count confirms the defeat of the question.

They have also deannexed the Lucy area they had annexed just prior to the election. Another lawsuit in Chancery Court contesting the annexation led Millington leaders to declare the votes from Lucy on the schools questions would not be counted. But Lucy residents may have voted in the referendum anyway in an election marred countywide by problems with voters getting the wrong ballots.

And Millington leaders don’t control whose votes are counted, at least not without a judge’s ruling.

The difficulties may solve a basic problem and in some ways the simplest problem as the focus shifts from the general cause of municipal school districts to the mechanics of municipal school districts.

All sides of the question agree state law says there can be no more than six public school districts in a single county.

Memphis and all six of the suburban towns and cities with municipal school districts make seven.

“It says six per county. So, we’ll just have to see,” McDonald said. “There are some parameters you have to meet in terms of number of children. I think all of us are just moving forward ready to face that whenever the time comes.”

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