Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Revenge of the 'Burbs

A guide to this year's surefire blockbusters on public schools.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 at 12:56 PM

For months, Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald and Germantown mayor Sharon Goldsworthy watched and waited.

In 2010, a referendum on general Memphis and Shelby County government consolidation passed in Memphis but was soundly defeated in the suburbs. In 2011, the focus shifted to the school systems as the Memphis board of education surrendered its charter and voters approved the action in a Memphis-only referendum. In August, U.S. District judge Samuel H. Mays laid down the law on a joint school board, and a transition planning team was appointed to oversee the merger in 2013.

That leaves 2012, and McDonald and Goldsworthy and their suburban counterparts are passive spectators no more. The game has shifted to their home field as they move to establish municipal school systems. Now, they're the ones holding the meetings, hiring the consultants, and sitting behind the microphones and dictating the action.

"I probably didn't think Memphis City Schools would give up their charter," McDonald said last week. "They did. They probably didn't think we would start our own municipal school system. We might."

Get ready for the Revenge of the 'Burbs. No need to rush out and see it. This blockbuster will run for years.

The Big Three are Germantown, Collierville, and Bartlett. All of them are at least 79 percent white, with a retail base to generate local sales taxes and a strong property-tax base — the two ways to fund municipal school systems if voters approve them in a referendum.

"The town that has the good school system is the town that is going to grow economically," said former Shelby County commissioner Charles Perkins, an attorney who has advised local school systems and mayors over the years. "If you ask people to vote on raising taxes, they're usually going to vote it down. Schools are one of the few things that could get it passed."

Germantown has 38,844 residents and a median home value of $281,000. Collierville has 43,965 residents and a median home value of $273,100. Bartlett has 54,613 residents and a median home value of $169,700. Arlington is the fast-growing up-and-comer, with 11,517 residents, a median home value of $219,000, and a high school built in 2004 that pulls students from Bartlett High School, which was built in 1917 and is 600 students below capacity.

The subject of school ownership dominated meetings last week of suburban leaders and their hired consultants led by former Shelby County Schools superintendent Jim Mitchell.

Students and school buildings are the chess pieces in this game. Students ought to have a bounty on their chests, because they bring with them state and local funding that allows the system to operate. School buildings were paid for by all residents of Shelby County (the exception is Arlington High School, paid for by a tax on residents outside of Memphis), but Mitchell told suburban mayors and aldermen that a legal case can be made for municipalities getting them for free.

Leaders of the Big Three happily accepted Mitchell's report and its hopeful prognosis and set about scheduling public meetings in February and referendum dates this spring. There was not a word about the Transition Planning team, which is early in its work but, at this point, might as well be selling "Herenton For Mayor" T-shirts in the suburbs.

The suburban votes have not yet been taken, but the road map is pretty clear. Barring court intervention, Germantown, Bartlett, Arlington, and Collierville aim to have their own municipal school systems in place by 2013 and will stake a claim on their current buildings and sports facilities at no charge.

If this were to happen, the future county school system would look pretty much like the current Memphis city school system, with different boundaries and a new school board and possibly a new superintendent.

The municipal systems would compete for students with private schools, charter schools, the county system, and home-schoolers. And they might well wind up competing with each other if they can't come up with cooperative agreements for divvying up thousands of students who attend suburban schools but live outside their municipal boundaries.

Such students account for a large percentage of the black student population, especially in Germantown, which is 3.6 percent black but its schools are 25 percent black. There was some wishful thinking among aldermen at the Germantown meeting about forming a joint system with Collierville, but Mitchell shot it down.

"You're going to have to create your own district," he said.

Mitchell is an old hand at this game. He worked with the Shelby County school system and suburban developer Waymon "Jackie" Welch when Cordova and southeast Shelby County were booming. Schools such as Cordova High School and Southwind High school and some of their feeder schools were built with sharing agreements between the city and county school boards. Welch was the county schools' preferred school site vendor.

"I kind of had the franchise for a while," he once told me.

The city of Memphis and Shelby County provided the roads and the sewer extensions, developers and homebuilders flocked to the suburbs, and the families provided the students that filled the schools. Cordova High School was turned over to Memphis, but Southwind High School — the only county high school that is almost all black — is in Memphis annexation limbo. It is a county school for now.

Mitchell and the suburban mayors say the munis should get the schools for free because they already paid for them. It is more accurate to say that, with the exception of Arlington High School, the residents of Shelby County, 74 percent of whom live in Memphis, paid for all of the city and county schools through their county property taxes. The county issued the bonds.

The suburbs (except Lakeland, which has no property tax) used their local taxes to pay for municipal buildings, police forces, and, in some cases, sewer systems. If they become municipal school systems, they will, as Mitchell acknowledged, have to pay for future school construction, which could push the extra tax levy above the projection of 15 cents per $100 of valuation. McDonald has already said a commitment to a new $26.5 million high school is needed "day one" in Bartlett. As part of Shelby County, suburban residents could also be subject to tax increases passed by the Memphis-dominated county commission.

Memphians are now taxed twice for schools, including a "one-time assessment" of 18 cents on their 2011 tax bills. Lowering property taxes is on the Memphis City Council's agenda. Memphis has a combined tax rate of $7.21 cents, compared to a rate of about $5.50 in the Big Three suburbs.

Watching all this play out, we can be sure, is the learned and inscrutable Judge Mays. As author John Updike wrote about baseball immortal Ted Williams, gods do not answer letters. Nor do judges answer letters or give interviews on active cases.

In his August ruling, Mays said the former county school board's electoral districts were unconstitutional because they excluded Memphis. That resulted in the new 23-member board.

Mays put much faith in the separate transition planning commission to submit a plan to the board "for consideration and approval, as it deems appropriate."

Mays hung fire on the issue of municipal school districts. In legal language, the issue was not "ripe."

Any harm, he wrote, "would not occur until an attempt was made to create a municipal school district or special school district. Nothing in the record suggests that such an attempt has been made or will be made in the future. Any harm depends on contingent future events."

That was then, this is now. Either Mays was using an awfully cloudy crystal ball or the issue is about to achieve "ripeness" if it hasn't done so already.

There is one more bit of unfinished business by the court.

In his acceptance of the terms of the new joint school board on September 28, 2011, Mays said "the court will appoint a special master to assist in implementing the consent decree and to resolve disputes among the parties as to any aspect of the transition to a combined school system or the operation of the separate school systems."

The time for that appointment also seems ripe.

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