Editorial: Let the merger process play out

On January 22, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

It would be wise for the suburbs to wait for the completion of a merger plan before starting school districts.

January 22, 2012

It should not have been a surprise that a consultants’ study said Shelby County’s suburban cities could afford to establish their own school systems.

It still doesn’t mean that is the best thing for the cities.

It would be wise, as urged by Gov. Bill Haslam and state Sen. Mark Norris, for the cities to delay any move to establish their own school districts until the process for merging the Memphis and Shelby County school districts runs its course.

Norris, the Senate majority leader, is the author and Senate sponsor of the Norris-Todd bill that set up the process for the districts to merge in the 2013-2014 school year.
The consultants’ study says that Bartlett, Collierville and Germantown each could establish their own municipal school district by increasing the property tax rate by 15 cents (only $75 a year on a home valued at $200,000) or by tacking on a half-cent local-option sales tax increase.

The consultants said the municipalities could save money by consolidating some functions like transportation, nutrition service and custodial work.

Lakeland, which does not have a property tax and has a scrawny retail base, would have to establish a property tax. Arlington probably would have to combine a small property tax increase with an increase in the sales tax to fund a school system.

The projected revenues from the sales or property tax increases apparently would only provide enough money for no-frills municipal districts. The numbers represent the best-case scenario, excluding capital expenses like replacing roofs, gym floors or kitchen equipment.

The feasibility factor is underpinned by an assumption that the cities would get the existing schools in their towns for free or for a very minimal cost.

But the new Unified School Board may disagree. If the board says “no,” then that decision surely would be challenged in court. It could take months for a judge to rule on the issue and more months if his or her ruling is appealed.

A third chapter in this scenario is the possibility of legislation being passed in the General Assembly that mandates that the cities get the schools for free. Both Haslam and Norris said they don’t want to see any legislation this year that would interfere with the school merger process.

The cities should wait until the Transition Planning Commission finishes its work. When that happens, all the possible options for how to merge the two districts will be on the table.

Who knows? One of the options could result in nothing really changing for schools in the suburban cities. That would give the cities’ leaders a better basis on which to weigh whether the real costs and benefits of operating a school district would be feasible if things are going to stay basically the same.

But there is a trust factor in play that suburban leaders must be willing to overcome. They’re worried that, given the county’s demographics, they won’t have long-term meaningful representation on a new unified school board.

That’s understandable. Yet, given what’s at stake, the suburban cites may be better off remembering that patience is a virtue.

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