Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bartlett Leaders Ready to Go Muni

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 9:35 PM

Keith McDonald
  • Keith McDonald
As expected, Bartlett leaders Wednesday eagerly accepted a consultant's study saying the suburb can feasibly start a municipal school system in 2013. Then Mayor Keith McDonald upped the "ask" to include not just existing buildings at no charge but also a new $26.5 million high school.

The mayor acknowledged that the current one is about 500 students below its capacity of 2,100 students. And only 7,428 students who live in Bartlett attend county schools, which is about 1700 short of the projected enrollment of the prospective municipal system in 2013, according to the study. In Bartlett, as in Germantown and Collierville, students don't necessarily go to the nearest school or the school in the suburb in which they reside. Some Bartlett students go to high school at Arlington and Bolton. Also, all three suburbs also draw students from unincorporated areas of Shelby County.

In some ways Bartlett might be better able to sustain a municipal system than Germantown. According to the latest census, Bartlett is bigger than Germantown, younger, and grew faster but is not as wealthy. Germantown, however, sends more children to private schools and fills its public schools with thousands of children from unincorporated areas near Southwind and from Collierville.

Along with funding, voter approval, and court challenges, one of the biggest uncertainties about the rush to municipal school systems is students, who might be walking around with bounties on their chests in 2013 as schools scramble to fill their classrooms and secure the state and local funding that follows the students and, in turn, pays the staff and the bills.

Consultant Jim Mitchell, a former Shelby County Schools superintendent, made the pitch to Bartlett, and it was similar to the one he made in Germantown 24 hours earlier. Consultants project that a Bartlett municipal system would have 9029 students, 886 employees, $69 million in revenue and $68.2 million in expenses. The system would be approximately 31 percent black, 59 percent white, and the rest other ethnic groups. As in Germantown, there were no questions or comments from spectators. More than 100 people filled the auditorium however, and many of them applauded at the end of the meeting.

The Bartlett Board of Mayor and Aldermen asked several questions, and McDonald, a member of the transition planning team, was one of the most enthusiastic backers of a municipal school system. He said the requisite 15 cents on the local property tax would add only $66 to the tax bill on a $175,000 home. And Bartlett also has a commercial base that would yield roughly $3.5 million a year if the community were to opt for a half-cent increase in the local option sales tax.

McDonald suggested Bartlett hold a public hearing on February 6th, a referendum on May 24th, and a school board election in November. He said "it's possible" lawsuits could delay the start of the muni in 2013, but he said he would urge residents to push for a new high school "on day one." One alderman suggested the cost should be covered by the citizens of Shelby County at large, not Bartlett, but Mitchell said Bartlett would have "first responsibility for your capital program."

In one scenario, Shelby County could have one large county school system and perhaps five municipal school systems, each with their own school board determined to get its existing buildings for nothing and pass its capital spending bills on to the unified school board. At 9,000 students, Bartlett would be the biggest municipal school system in the state.

No one on the board spoke favorably about or even mentioned the future unified school district or the transition planning team which, judging by recent suburban meetings, might as well be selling "Herenton For Mayor" t-shirts.

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

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