VOL. 127 | NO. 30 | Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Luttrell Looks to Advance School Bldg. Talks
By Bill Dries
The idea of a consolidated Shelby County public school system as a platform of sorts for various school models is beginning to emerge in what may be the most contentious part of the yearlong schools reformation discussion.
To some players and onlookers to the coming discussion, consolidation and municipal school districts are two separate subjects. To others they aren’t.
And then there’s the debate about whether they should be separate or together.
“We’ve got to stay focused on the fact that there are many different ways to educate a child,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said. “It can be done through public schools, private schools, any number of venues. That’s my objective – to provide an open playing field where we can educate our children in a way that makes parents feel comfortable and makes children feel like they’re progressing.”
Luttrell talked about a way forward after the Shelby County Commission approved another way forward – negotiations by Luttrell with the countywide school board on the terms under which school buildings financed with county government money might be transferred to municipal school districts.
The voting majority on the commission sees some urgency in coming to some understanding on the terms before the Tennessee Legislature acts on bills that would turn the schools over to the suburban school districts for free.
Luttrell isn’t convinced the urgency is necessary.
“What I want to do is not a reaction to Mark Norris,” he said, referring to the state Senate Republican leader from Collierville who is a sponsor of the pending legislation. “What I want to do is just what you normally do when you are trying to protect your assets. That’s the whole premise of my action is to make sure that we don’t have to increase our debt, increase taxes and that we are staying focused on what’s best for the students.”
Increasingly, Luttrell’s argument is for a coexistence that so far hasn’t materialized in the civic debate.
“I’m not getting bogged down in whether we will or will not have municipal districts,” he said. “We might have municipal districts. We also might have charter schools. We may have an increase in home schooling. What can we do to make those systems work and protect our assets.”
The suburban versus urban debate, which includes conflicting ledgers of who paid what for schools and when, still has plenty of life left in it.
Opponents of the formal request from the commission argue that it will treat the suburbs differently than Memphis City Schools were treated in the transfer of what had been county schools in areas annexed by the city of Memphis.
“It’s not that Memphis got them for free,” said countywide school board member Martavius Jones. “It’s comparable to taking something from your left pocket and putting it in your right pocket.”
Commissioner Mike Ritz said past County Commissions were right in giving the schools to Memphis City Schools because MCS is funded by county government, which financed the school buildings in the two public school systems to begin with.
“If Memphis had had to pay for those schools, it would have had to come to us for the money. We would have had to give them the money,” Ritz said. “We – the Shelby County taxpayers – would have simply paid for the schools twice.”
Commissioner Wyatt Bunker quarreled with the idea that set groups of city taxpayers and county taxpayers have paid in separate columns into a single county property tax base over the decades.
“The people that live here now are probably the same people that lived here then. They just live in different areas,” Bunker said. “We‘ve lived here all of our lives. … We’re the same people that you are referring to paying in 1970 and 1980. You’re saying they didn’t pay for the buildings. The city of Memphis did. We were the city of Memphis back then.”