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VOL. 127 | NO. 13 | Friday, January 20, 2012

Bartlett Explores Own School District

By Bill Dries

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If Bartlett moves forward with its own municipal school district, the city’s school board would have to immediately begin making plans for a new high school.

And it would need to forge a cooperative agreement with the countywide school system or another municipal school system that would include Arlington High School and Bon Lin Elementary School and other territory outside the city that Bartlett students now attend.

The Bartlett Mayor and Board of Aldermen made those points Wednesday, Jan. 18, during a public discussion of the Southern Educational Strategies LLC report on a municipal school district.

The report outlines a school system with 9,029 students in which Bartlett High School would be at or over its capacity of 2,100 students. The high school is not now at capacity.

The elementary and middle schools in a separate Bartlett school system would not be at capacity.

Mayor Keith McDonald has tentatively scheduled a Feb. 6 public meeting for citizens to express their sentiments. The Board of Aldermen could vote on the first of three readings of a referendum ordinance at its Feb. 14 meeting. That ordinance would put the municipal school district question to Bartlett voters.

McDonald said he would like to see a late May referendum election day timed about the time the Shelby County school year ends on May 24 with 15 days of early voting before Election Day.

The ballot item would probably be on a 15-cent property tax hike for a municipal school system – the state law requirement for minimum local funding to form a municipal school system. Another alternative is a half-cent local option sales tax rate increase. But the sales tax rate increase would require approval from the Tennessee Legislature, according to McDonald.

If voters approved the tax hike, there could be elections for a Bartlett school board on the Nov. 6 ballot that is topped by the presidential general election. And McDonald estimates the new board could hire a superintendent for the school system by January.

Alderwoman Emily Elliott said her “biggest concern” was picking a superintendent and then getting caught in a lengthy court battle over whether Bartlett has to pay fair market value for the school buildings it intends to use.

“Anyone can sue anyone,” McDonald said. “It is possible.”

After the meeting, McDonald said he believes the consultants are correct in their reliance on court cases involving the transfer of buildings for no charge during an annexation by a city.

But he and others who also believe that is solid legal ground also acknowledge it is likely to be a point decided by a judge. McDonald said such a legal challenge would be “stalling.”

“In my mind, that’s all it will be. Perhaps we wouldn’t get to start August 2013,” he said. “But we would expect to prevail based on case history and we would start maybe in 2014.”

Alderman Jay Rainey expressed concern about raising property taxes to build a new $26.5 million high school and said it is “logical” to look at cooperative agreements with the countywide school system.

McDonald estimated there would be about $750,000 a year in excess revenue from a property tax rate hike after the required level of local spending is met. And that could meet the debt service on a new school over 20 years.

Rainey said he favors a Bartlett school system.

“But I am interested in doing it in the most efficient way and if possible so it doesn’t hurt the Shelby County system. It just makes it better for Bartlett,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’d be nice if we could get a lot of work done before we have to go to court.”

Rainey has experience in such agreements. When some of the suburban cities parted ways with the Memphis-Shelby County library system to have their own library systems, Rainey, as Bartlett’s chief administrative officer, negotiated the agreement between Bartlett and Memphis in which Memphis runs Bartlett’s public library.

McDonald doesn’t rule out something similar happening between Bartlett and the countywide school system now taking shape with a merged board running two school systems that will merge at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

But he said Bartlett can’t do the agreements first because of the short span of time to create its own school district.

“There are cooperative agreements to be had,” McDonald said. “I probably didn’t think the (MCS) would give up its charter. They did. I don’t think they thought we would start our own municipal schools and we might. I think a lot of people have taken a lot of things for granted from each other.”

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