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VOL. 128 | NO. 207 | Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hopson Proposes Plan for Unincorporated Schools

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Schools system would continue to educate school age children in the unincorporated areas of Shelby County and operate the 14 schools in those areas as well as one in Lucy and the three schools in Germantown bearing that city’s name under a proposal presented Tuesday, Oct. 22, to the countywide school board by schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

The proposal that the school board could vote on as early as next week would reverse the long-held plan by suburban leaders to include students and schools in the unincorporated county as well as the Memphis annexation reserve area in the separate school systems they are forming.

Hopson said the plan would not preclude those students from attending schools in the new suburban school districts. But he also said legally it appears the school system cannot reach interlocal agreements with the suburban school boards because those students and their parents don’t have representation on those school boards which are about to be elected.

"If municipalities do not agree to take these kids in perpetuity, at some point they will return to the county school board and then we have a planning issue, regardless of who takes the kids on the front end,” Hopson told the board which led into his recommendation to keep operating four schools within the city limits of Germantown and Millington. “We determined that if the board maintained the four schools … that we have capacity such that we would not have to ask the county commission to build more schools.”

The plan would move students in unincorporated Shelby County now attending schools that would become part of the suburban school districts into different schools, all of which Hopson added have the capacity to handle more students.

He also told the board that the plan minimized disruption to students and parents.

“This would have quite a bit of impact,” said school board member David Reaves. “Is there a more disruptive scenario?”

Hopson said there would be disruption for some students regardless of whether they attend the suburban school districts or remain in the Shelby County Schools system. He also said a large percentage of the students, particularly those in the three Germantown schools, are in the Memphis annexation reserve area.

Reaves said he is in favor of the general plan.

“Basically it came down to four schools,” he said of the four schools in Germantown and Lucy. “We have no county capacity in the southeast and the only way to do that would be to build new facilities. And we don’t believe that the county commission is going to be amenable to doing that.”

Shelby County government is the sole local funder of Shelby County Schools. The school board does not have taxing authority to raise revenue on its own.

Without the four schools that seem to be at issue in the plan, Reaves said, “It puts us in a bit of a bind when it comes to open space. I understand the concern but we also have concerns in the southeast about where we are going to put our kids.”

He also advocated selling the school buildings in the suburban towns and cities, apart from those four, to the new school systems for a token amount.

“I’m 100 percent for giving the leases for a dollar because some of these buildings are old and they have tons of deferred maintenance,” he said. “So, the reality is we need to get rid of some of these buildings.”

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said she was “deeply disappointed” in the plan.

“By their keeping those three schools south of Poplar, it’s displacing, by our numbers, 1,300 out of 4,500 students,” she said. “Is that not disrupting students especially when you are transporting the great majority of them across Poplar?”

Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman indicated the proposal was the result of private discussions involving the Shelby County Commission and suburban leaders ostensibly around the federal lawsuit contesting the creation of the suburban school districts. But unlike past settlement talks, the last round that began in August also included the school system.

“It’s something that we’ve worked on for a long time. Cooler heads prevailed. SCS has done the due diligence,” he said. “I know there are some issues possibly with the building issue with Germantown and Millington. But I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Just before Hopson unveiled the plan Tuesday evening, attorneys for the county commission filed a motion in Memphis Federal Court seeking a two-month extension from U.S. District Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays to continue talks to give the board time to consider the proposal. Mays had sought positions from all sides in the lawsuit on what was left for him to decide that they could not settle.

"Negotiations have not been completed because the school board requested that the Shelby County Schools' planning department prepare a comprehensive report on school capacity and enrollment in Shelby County as a whole so that the school board could determine how the creation of municipal school districts might impact the capacity and enrollment of Shelby County Schools," reads the filing by attorney Lori H. Patterson. "The movant presumes that after this report has been considered by the board, the settlement negotiations will resume and final agreements can be reached that may result in a dismissal of all pending claims."

Hopson outlined the decisions the school board needs to make as:

Does the board want to educate children in the unincorporated areas?

If so, does the board keep the schools in those areas and does it keep the four in Germantown and Millington?

And for the remainder of the school buildings within the six suburban towns and cities, does the school board lease them to the new school districts or does it negotiate to sell them outright?

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