MAKING TWO INTO ONE 

Herenton urges consolidation of city and county schools.

When the city and county government finally consolidated, it was a function of "personality, party politics, angry suburban reaction to annexation and a city-imposed wheel tax, public health concerns related to adequate sewers, demographic changes that portended a serious declining tax base in the central city, competing school systems in search of anadequate revenue base," and so on. Sound familiar, at least a little bit? Those were the reasons, according to a July 2001 study commissioned by the Memphis City Schools board of education, for the consolidation of Nashville and Davidson County. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton recently proposed the city council hold a referendum to surrender the city schools' charter, thereby consolidating the two local school districts. Although he discovered that the city council does not have the jurisdiction to do so, he has vowed to move forward with the plan, seeking an opinion on the matter from the state attorney general. "Until we reform how our schools are governed and until we have the ability to unify theschool districts, our children will continue to suffer," said Herenton. Tuesday morning he released information showing a 35-cent savings to city residents' property taxes under a unified school system. But how has the proposal been discussed with the two school districts it would involve? When asked about the MCS board's recent retreat, Herenton said he wasn't invited. Nor has he appeared before the county school board. If the city schools did end up surrendering their charter, it would be the county schools who would have to run a district three times their size. In July 2001, facing a similar issue, the MCS board received a study on consolidation in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. The study made no recommendations on Memphis' situation but outlined what had happened in other places. Generally, it ead, "Larger districts tend to be less personal; involve more red tape; remove teachers and principals further from district-level decision-making; require more time in transit; and have lower attendance rates and higher dropout rates; while parental involvement and community support may wane some, too." It also raised the question of whether consolidation actually lowers taxes. Nashville's consolidation appeared to be well-received, but costs rose due to an increase in services and to assure salary equity. Educational costs also increased in Knoxville. "Constant-dollar school expenditures have actually risen by 49 percent since consolidation occurred. ... Given that most spending is done in the classroom, there will not be evolutionary amounts of savings from consolidation, as all the existing students will still need to be taught" read the report. The initial operating budget proposal asked for $16 million more than the previous two districts' budgets combined, mostly because of equalizations between the two systems. By state law, when two districts consolidate, they have to match the higher system's per-pupil expenditures. In Memphis, per-pupil expenditure is $7,368 while Shelby County's is $6,024 or a difference of $1,344. If $1,344 extra had to be spent on the 44,610 students currently in the county's system, it would cost an additional $59.96 million each year. That's not completely unlikely either. According to the report, per-pupil expenditure in Chattanooga jumped from $4,487 in 1997-1998 to $6,440 in 1999-2000, a 43.5 percent increase over three years. And Knoxville's consolidation might have another lesson for Memphis. "Every account concurred that the way Knox County arrived at consolidation was not the way it should be done. They definitely do not recommend having the city school system simply surrender its charter, creating consolidation by default. Without a plan, there ends up being unnecessary uncertainty, fear, litigation, and so on."

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