Group Weighs Schools Logistics

By Bill Dries

The city charter requires Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division to provide water to the Memphis City Schools system at no charge.

When MCS consolidates with the Shelby County Schools system in 2013, the merged system may have to pay a water bill as well as electric and gas bills. Or the free water may flow to the former county schools as well.

And the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office could be looking at a much bigger line item in its budget to provide officers to all of the schools in the merged system.

Those are just two of many considerations the schools consolidation planning commission will start weighing in May while making decisions about the financing of the system as well as logistics like transporting students, feeding them and how to run school buildings.

“It’s an issue on the horizon,” attorney Dedrick Brittenum, also a member of the MLGW board, said of the flow of free water.

Brittenum added the utility board has been discussing the issue but has not taken a formal position. He said the sentiment seems to be “the free water will cease.”

“You may want to request a legal opinion on it,” he told planning commission members last week.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has already talked with Sheriff Bill Oldham about how county government’s overall budget would be impacted by the school security decision.

“It doesn’t look like it will have a direct impact on the schools budget,” Luttrell said. “Certainly, to some extent, it will have a significant impact on the county’s. It’s something we’re going to have to plan for.”

The discussion also turned toward Memphis police possibly assuming a larger role on a regular basis in more schools.

“The sheriff would need time and money to catch up,” said planning commissioner Larry Spiller.

The comparison of the finances and logistics of the school systems by Boston Consulting Group as a preliminary to recommendations in May or June includes services provided to county schools by county government as well as services provided to city schools by city government.

“I do think we are coming up on a lot of questions now that really need to be addressed by the city,” Luttrell said, suggesting a list of issues as “one comprehensive request for clarity.”

The planning commission has some questions of its own, the most political of which looks to be whether to outsource some services like transportation.

The separate school systems are polar opposites on the practices.

The logistics baseline for the two school system is the planning commission’s first specific look at where schools are and how they are used and could be used without a city-county boundary for local education.

The BCG map confirms underutilization of Memphis City Schools in the western part of the city, something MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash has noted for years.

It also shows city schools exceeding 100 percent capacity – meaning they use portable classrooms or operate over their capacity.

“We have a lot of schools right now that may be right at the city or county line. But there’s overutilization … with capacity that would be available in Shelby County schools,” said planning commissioner and countywide school board member Martavius Jones. “What we’ve had to do in the past is construct a school … and all Shelby County taxpayers had to pay for that when an easier proposition would have been, in essence, going across district lines.”

The exceptions to county school overcrowding by the BCG map are in the Bridgewater “donut hole” section of unincorporated Shelby County surrounded by the city of Memphis and the unincorporated part of northwest Shelby County, west of Millington.

“What I’m seeing is a great deal of overutilization,” said commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott. “You’ve got some (space) in unincorporated areas.”