One city could miss out on own schools

On January 27, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

By Cynthia Bullion, The Barlett Express
January 27, 2012

Add one to the list of potential snags in the pursuit of municipal school districts in Shelby County.

According to state law, only five school districts will be allowed in addition to a merged Memphis and county one when the ban on municipal school districts is lifted in August 2013. Consider each of Shelby’s six municipalities are at least looking into the option — Collierville and Germantown this week took first action after reviewing feasibility studies — and it’s obvious someone could end up the odd man out.

“It is a question,” State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) said in confirmation of how the law could affect municipalities’ hopes for entering the education business.

He noted since reconvening earlier this month, state legislators have raised concerns that a change in the law would be needed to allow for more than six school districts in Shelby County “but nobody has really focused on doing that, yet” in the state Senate.

In the House, Rep. Curry Todd (R-Collierville) on Tuesday filed a bill that would allow municipalities to band together for the creation of one suburban school district, potentially eliminating the chance one Shelby County municipality would be unable to establish its own district.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald acknowledged Tuesday that, at least psychologically, the pressure remains on for his city and fellow municipalities in the county to waste no time in making a decision regarding their own school district.

Municipalities are already facing a short window of opportunity to approve any related ordinances, hold local referendums, create a board of education and further prepare for a target August 2013 open date.

“It is going to be difficult,” McDonald said.

Bartlett has scheduled a public meeting regarding its feasibility study, released last week, for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Bartlett Station Municipal Center with plans for aldermen to discuss action toward a municipal school district at their Feb. 14 meeting.

McDonald said approving related ordinances – likely one for creation of a school district and a second to provide funding through either a property tax or local option sales tax increase, or both — would mandate a special called meeting the first week of March in order to hold a May 10 referendum as recommended in the feasibility study by Southern Educational Strategies, LLC.

A second public meeting in advance of an official hearing on any ordinances is not anticipated.

“We’re just not getting many questions (from residents) about the process,” McDonald said.

SES’s study estimates if Bartlett were to increase its current property tax rate of $1.49 by 15 cents to meet a state spending requirement, the city would have roughly $793,000 surplus after $68.3 million in expenditures.

On the other hand, a voter-approved local option sales tax increase of one-half cent would create a $1.974 million surplus in a projected education budget that doesn’t include any capital improvements.

In Arlington, the same local option sales tax would not cover the state spending requirement equal to what a 15-cent property tax levy would generate, but it would reduce the amount of a needed property tax increase to approximately 3 cents. SES estimated first-year expenditures for a school system in the town at almost $35.4 million.

Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman said aldermen would discuss its municipal school district feasibility study during a work session Thursday night, with some public comments being allowed at the end if time allows.

So far, he said, feedback from residents has been positive.

“I think everybody is still kind of in shock the numbers are lower than what we being said about taxes doubling or tripling at one point,” Wissman said. “The numbers are very acceptable to most.”

The mayor said he does not believe the road to a municipal school district would be easy.

“A lot of people are wanting immediate action under the assumption things will work out as smooth as it says in the report,” Wissman said. “I understand there will be some difficulties.”

One of the biggest difficulties likely to arise revolves around whether Shelby County Schools would transfer school buildings and related equipment to the city at no cost, as SES’s report states case law, past practice and the spirit of a state law guiding the merger of the county and Memphis City school districts supports.

The school building issue would affect each of the county’s municipalities that decide to pursue their own school district and on Tuesday prompted Rep. Todd to also file a related bill, in favor of municipalities. That bill died Thursday, when no companion was filed in the Senate.

Still, Lakeland, according to its feasibility study from SES, may come to even more hurdles than its counterparts. Estimates could put a proposed school district enrollment below what state law requires and require a property tax where there currently is none.

To meet a projected first-year budget of $6.7 million, the city would need to levy a 15-cent property tax or an approximately 5-cent property tax in combination with a one-half cent local option sales tax.

City manager Robert Wherry said Mayor Scott Carmichael hopes to hold two public meetings before March regarding the study, the dates not yet confirmed.


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