Details of Municipal School Districts Shift

By Bill Dries

The closer suburban school systems come to reality, the more the specific terms of their existence shift and move.

The closer suburban leaders get to forming separate school districts, the more the details of those districts shift and change.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Voters in the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County go to the polls Thursday, Nov. 7, to elect school boards for their six school systems.

Because so many of the school board positions are one-candidate unopposed races, some of those presumed school board members have already been talking with leaders of their respective communities about a quick move to get the school systems up and running.

It is when the early voting period opened last month that the changes began to emerge in the idea that the suburban school systems would continue to educate children from unincorporated Shelby County who attend those schools now.

That’s when Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson and his staff unveiled the plan that would keep those children in the Shelby County Schools system and keep four schools – three in Germantown and one in Millington – within Shelby County Schools as well.

Hopson contends – and the board agrees – it has to have a plan to educate those children who could get squeezed out of suburban school districts as the schools fill with students who live in the six communities.

Germantown Elementary, Middle and High schools remaining in the Shelby County Schools system affects the plans for a Collierville school district because, according to Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, about 1,000 students living in Collierville attend Houston High School in Germantown, the only other high school within the Germantown city limits.

If Germantown High School remains part of Shelby County Schools, high school-age students living in Germantown presumably would attend Houston.

“I think it’s a little bit early to look at exactly what that effect would be,” Goldsworthy said.

“We were going to take them,” she said of the high school-age students from Collierville now at Houston. “At first glance, we are most hopeful of continuing this informal – not agreement – but understanding we have had with Collierville. It’s been mayor to mayor.”

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald has been the most vocal among the mayors of not only negotiating terms of the school buildings and what happens with students in the unincorporated county but also ending the part of the federal lawsuit being pursued by Shelby County Commissioners.

The legal claim by the commission is that the suburban school districts violate the U.S. Constitution because they would racially “resegregate” public education in Shelby County.

Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker, elected in September, is also a Shelby County Commissioner. He is among the minority on the commission opposed to the legal claim.

He thinks it is irrelevant to the talks that will begin shortly after this week’s school board election results are certified.

“It’s becoming less and less of a factor as we move forward,” Bunker said, adding that Shelby County Schools board members he’s spoken with agree.

“Whether it served a purpose in the past is debatable. Some people believe it brought everybody to the table in a manner in which they wanted to work towards an agreement towards the settlement,” Bunker said. “I can argue another position and say that would have happened anyway. … Is this having an impact on the process? Is it negative or positive? I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s just out there lingering, costing the taxpayers money.”

Bunker likely won’t have a vote on any resolution that could come to the commission to end the litigation. A Shelby County Attorney’s opinion holds that it is a conflict of interest for Bunker to vote on the matter given his new position as mayor of Lakeland.

Some on the commission have argued that without the lawsuit still pending, there would be nothing to stop suburban leaders from going to Nashville seeking legislation to get schools from Shelby County Schools at no cost. The lawsuit continuing is a hedge against the suburban leaders doing that because it would mean possibly years of continued legal fees for all sides in what would be a complex case involving experts and the history of segregation and desegregation in public education as well as demographics past, present and future.

McDonald has said if suburban leaders end up having to pay a negotiated price for school buildings, as it outlined in the Shelby County Schools framework approved by the board last month, it should be accompanied by the lawsuit coming to an end.