Suburbs, unified schools differ on interests

On January 26, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

Legislation, legalities pose issues to municipal districts
By Michael Kelley,
January 26, 2012

Suburban Shelby County municipalities and the architects of Shelby County’s unified school district drew a lot closer on what could turn out to be a collision course this week.

A resolution approved by the Germantown Board of Aldermen directed Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy to “engage … in meaningful dialogue” with the schools Transition Planning Commission and the unified Memphis and Shelby County Board of Education.

Her objectives would include control of eight Germantown school buildings and a cooperative educational contract between a future Germantown municipal school district and the unified board.

Neither of those goals is consistent with positions either taken or likely to be taken by the TPC or the unified board.

But efforts by Germantown and other suburban entities determined to get into the public school business were encouraged by the introduction of three related pieces of legislation by state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville.

One of the bills would transfer county school buildings to new municipal school districts for free and require the unified system to pay off remaining debt.

Another would make it possible to merge individual municipal school districts, essentially restoring the premerger dual system of public education in Shelby County. A third would direct the state Department of Education to get involved.

Todd’s bills were not immediately answered by Senate companions. But in an interview with The Commercial Appeal editorial board earlier this month, state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, added a caveat to his general agreement with Haslam on the issue: that the transition process by which a countywide system is being created should be allowed to play out without new legislation this year.

“At the same time, if there’s any legislation that’s needed to further the process or the intent of the law as it was written, you’ve got to keep that open as a possibility,” Norris said. “… I’m still intrigued whether the municipal concept can be incorporated in the transition plan.”

Just last week, the TPC voted to approve a statement asserting that its “charge as defined by (state legislation) is to create a plan to merge Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools to provide a high quality education for all students within Shelby County.”

For the TPC to recommend a cooperative educational contract with a suburban municipal school district would not be consistent with that mission. “We’re just really bound by a law that says we are to do a plan for the merger of city and county schools,” TPC chairman Barbara Prescott said. “I don’t think we’re given the right to enter into negotiations.”

“I would like to see everyone slow down a little bit and let the process play out,” said unified board chairman Billy Orgel. “I think it’s hard to have an opinion about what’s going to come out of the TPC (deliberations). How do you know it’s not beneficial to the children if you haven’t seen it yet?”

On the issue of control of school buildings, an ad hoc committee of the unified board on Jan. 10 went on record in support of state legislation that would require entities renting or purchasing buildings owned by the school district to pay fair market value.

That and other legislative issues are expected to be addressed by the board next week.

Consultants for suburban municipalities exploring starting their own school districts have assured suburban officials that they have a right to school buildings within their jurisdictions at little or no cost. However, there is no legal precedent that goes directly to the issue in Tennessee, and the matter might eventually have to be settled in court.

The question is key to the establishment of a suburban municipal school district, whose feasibility would be significantly enhanced if its planners could get the keys to county school campuses.

During a presentation last week by school consultants, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said the suburb has worked with Memphis in the past on cooperative agreements, and “I do hope the other parties involved will be open to those kinds of discussions.

The decision by the Memphis City Schools board to give up its charter was unexpected, McDonald noted. “I don’t think they thought we would start our own municipal schools, and we might.”

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