(This article has been revised and -- modestly -- re-titled since its first publication early Friday afternoon, prior to the special County Commission meeting regarding the thorny issue of how to deal with the potential transfer of school buildings to new municipal school districts in suburbia.)
It now seems a forgone conclusion that the suburban municipalities of Shelby County will form their own school districts as the formal merger of city and county schools proceeds.
The main issue of contention is whether they should be required to pay for the existing school buildings they hope to inherit, and state Sen. Mark Norris has said he is preparing legislation on the subject.
But coming to the fore is another issue.
County mayor Mark Luttrell, who, at a special meeting of the Shelby County Commission on Friday, was endowed by the Commission with special negotiating powers on school-property and other matters, had earlier confided to the Flyer that he and various other governmental entities are investigating the possibility that any new suburban school districts may not have automatic access to the county general fund for educational purposes (as the evanescent Memphis City Schools system always has had).
Other sources in county government confirm that such a theory has been under discussion.
Should it be acted upon and validated by the courts, it could well be something of a deal-breaker for the municipalities.
Meeting with reporters following Friday's special Commission meeting, Luttrell elaborated on questions regarding the future financial obligations of the county vis-à-vis future municipal school districts.
The mayor addressed the possibility of there being no funding of new school districts from the county general fund cautiously but unmistakably, proffering the following caveat to those in the suburbs moving to create the new school districts.:
“We don’t know all the details of funding of municipal districts if they go that direction. And. I would hope that the municipal districts would do their due diligence and make sure that they have answers to some of those questions before they take this to a referendum…. I would just hope that our suburban municipalities would take time to get answers to those questions.”
The county’s financial obligation to the new districts remained “an unanswered question,” Luttrell said. “We know there will be state and federal funding, but to what extent there will be county funding is just not clear at this moment. We just don’t know.”
Luttrell said the funding issue was being researched not just by the county attorney’s office but by the state Attorney General and the state Department of Education.
Add to this the fact that Luttrell's new mission, sanctioned by the Commission but already underway on his own tack, is to explore the possibilities of binding compensation agreements on the transfer of school buildings from the Uniform Shelby County School Board to the prospective new suburban districts.
The additional expense this could entail, added to an enlarged burden of self-financing, could involve residents of the suburban municipalities with more financial responsibilities for public education than the forecasts of their consultants, Southern Educational Strategies, have estimated.
(More on the county mayor's new role will be forthcoming in a separate weekend article.)