The Politics of Shelby County School Districts

On November 22, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris
November 22, 2010

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – For more than a century, “separate but equal” was the cornerstone philosophy of American education in the South. But, years after legal integration, do the current heightened tensions over the financial futures of both Memphis and Shelby County school systems require a major step backward in time or a bold, but blind move into uncertainty for all? Tennessee State Senator, Bryan Kelsey of Germantown asserts it’s not time for either school system to go to their “nuclear options.”

“Now is not really the time for this divisive rhetoric of us versus them in terms of taxes,” said Kelsey. “Now is the time for us to come together as one community and see if we can reach a compromise solution that works best for all the taxpayers.”

For the last 15 years, Shelby County school officials have already made it clear any compromise solution with Memphis City Schools had to include agreeing to support legislative passage of a special schools district designation with taxing autonomy of its own.

“Special School District was the roll of the dice for the county, because they flipped their hand way too soon,” said Commissioner Sidney Chism.

“Give us the responsibility,” Shelby County School Board President David Pickler said in 2002. “Give us the hammer that can make these tough decisions and we’ll be accountable for spending the money wisely.”

But in 2006, after reaching a tentative agreement with MCS Board members to back legislation so both school systems could be designated as special districts, the failure of the measure to pass in the legislature that year generated acrimony and accusations of betrayal that still linger.

“At the time that we needed them the most they turned their back on us,” Pickler said in 2006. “That’s something that we think is deeply concerning to any relationship we might have had.”

“I believe that we’ve held up our end of the bargain as far as the full agreement; there were just some issues we needed to clarify.” Former MCS Board member Deni Hirsch said in 2006.

Since then, Shelby County school officials have vowed to go it alone with getting the legislative approval, and they’ve come pretty close. But, even with a Republican dominated General Assembly and the expressed vocal support of legislators such as Mark Norris, the potential stumbling block for passage remains the same: another property tax burden added to the mix of an already heavily taxed city and county.

“The County Commission will still have the ability to levy taxes and the city, and of course, you created a special school district with that ability,” said Commissioner Mike Carpenter. “So, we already have the highest combined tax rate in the state.”

Kelsey concluded, “This is not the end of the discussion on Special School Districts. In my opinion it’s just the beginning of the discussion.”

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