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VOL. 127 | NO. 34 | Monday, February 20, 2012

Suburban Schools’ Train ‘Has Left the Station’

By Bill Dries

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The six suburban mayors say the train to municipal school districts is on the tracks and has no time to stop to consider whatever plan the schools consolidation transition planning commission comes up with for a merged public school system.

Planning commission member Christine Richards and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell expressed reservations last week about plans for municipal school districts.

(Photo: Daily News Photo/Lance Murphey)

But in the first formal meeting between the mayors and the planning commission last week, the mayors got an earful from the commission about their concerns of a municipal school districts train wreck the commission may have to clean up.

“Come August 2013, we will have a plan that can serve your children and serve them well,” planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott told the suburban leaders. “There has to be that. We’re going to take in to consideration all of your concerns. … We will have a plan that addresses many of your stated concerns. It may not go far enough.”

Asked if there was anything in the structure of a consolidated school system that might prompt the suburban leaders to halt or delay their plans and join the merged school system, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald replied, “I would never say never. But it’s unlikely. The train has left the station.”

He also cited momentum building among citizens in the suburbs to move ahead with the separate school districts.

“As a politician I don’t know how you’d be able to stand in the way of that,” he said.

“We are up against a timeline,” added Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman. “We are being pushed by our constituents.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell was among those on the planning commission who questioned whether the municipal school districts envisioned can work especially with plans to educate children not only in a particular town but across suburban town and city lines and including children in unincorporated Shelby County.

Luttrell suggested at the meeting – as he told the planning commission last month – that it had to come to terms with the move to municipal school districts as it put together its merged school system plan, due to be completed this August. The school districts will be merged effective at the start of the 2013-2014 school year, which is the same date the suburban mayors plan to open their school districts if voters approve them in a set of referenda now being planned for May.

Elections of municipal school district boards of education would follow in November, the mayors said, in order for the new school boards to hire superintendents by January to prepare for an August 2013 start of the suburban school districts.

“Is the problem so compelling that you have to hit that September 2013 deadline?” Luttrell asked. “Is that something that could be delayed for a year?”

Luttrell was also one of many questioning the conclusions of reports from Southern Educational Strategies LLC on which five of the six suburban cities are basing their plans – including how to pay for the school systems.

“I just don’t think you can do it on a half-cent sales tax or a 15-cent property tax hike,” Luttrell said of the SES funding estimates. “That really troubles me.”

Planning commission member Christine Richards, general counsel of FedEx Corp., was even more critical. She termed the municipal school districts plans based on the consulting firm reports “fundamentally flawed.”

“They fail to address the most important part of this law. … What’s a municipal school district? … A municipal school district in its plain meaning serves the children who live in the municipality,” she said. “I don’t see how a federal district court judge – which I’m sure is where this is all going to end up – can interpret the words ‘new municipal school district’ to include what you’re proposing.”

Richards chaired a planning commission public hearing in Arlington in January that drew a healthy turnout of citizens who back a municipal school district and are opposed to schools consolidation.

“The people who do not live in Arlington are counting on representations that have been made that they will be able to keep their children in Arlington schools,” she said. “The way I look at it, there is one group sitting in this room that has clear legal authority to set forth a plan that will allow the expectations of all of those parents to be met. And that’s the transition planning commission.”

Prescott specifically questioned what would happen if a municipal school district saw a rise in students within a town or city and had to displace students attending those schools from unincorporated areas and other towns and cities.

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