Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Myth Of The Growing County Schools' System

It’s an immutable law of modern politics that no matter what else you do as an elected official, you have to keep your base happy. No matter what.

Sadly, in recent years, this inviolate belief has grown to obsession, spawning an epidemic of robotic talking points aimed at solidifying “the base,” regardless of whether they are backed up by facts or not.

On its worse days, it produces a pandering that undercuts confidence in the entire political system. On its best days, it is merely comical, as politicians of various stripes merely ignore the facts of the debate and repeat ad nauseum the same tired bullet points.

It’s as if many politicians have become prisoners of their base, ignoring any hint from the broader public that their rhetoric and their actions should at least have passing acquaintance. And most amazing of all, when politicians do this most masterfully, news reporters even pick up their rhetoric as if it is fact.

We thought of all this as we read recent coverage of the attempt to get Shelby County Schools some quick money - $3 million, to be precise.

Two paragraphs in The Commercial Appeal coverage caught our eye.

The first was one in which reporter Michael Erskine stated as a fact, without any attribution, the following: “County school leaders are in line to get funding for a new elementary school next fiscal year, which would provide much-needed capacity.”

The second: “‘The need is extremely apparent,’ said (Commissioner David) Lillard, who said the county system simply can’t keep up with the growing number of students.”

It’s amazing how many phrases, such as “much-needed capacity,” find their way into news articles, although they are essentially opinion. In this case, the reporter endorses the viewpoint of Shelby County Schools, but of course, doesn’t offer a scintilla of information to back up his statement.

This brings us to Commissioner Lillard’s comment. In proposing the “emergency” funding for county schools, he continued his “no matter what” support for Shelby County Schools. After all, he advocated the Arlington High Schools, county government’s latest Valentine to sprawl. It’s in the wrong place and won’t be needed for years, if ever. Later, he was cheerleader for the Southeast Shelby High School, which has the distinction of being at the fatal intersection where politics and logic collide with the inevitable fatality, logic. This high school is to be built at the worst possible location, based on worst possible justification and using the worst design capacities.

What makes this even more confounding is the fact that as a lawyer, Commissioner Lillard has the reputation for having the best nose for the facts of a business deal of any one in his profession. That’s why it’s so surprising to hear him make the argument that it is growth that demands that the county district gets more funding and more schools.

This argument is made although the website of Shelby County Schools puts its enrollment in the 45,000-student range, and the Memphis Tomorrow study of school funding – led by county schools’ officials – set enrollment in the range of 46,000 students. In other words, using its own numbers, Shelby County Schools acknowledges that its enrollment peaked in 1999 with 48,770 students, a fact pointed out in various independent studies about growth patterns in Shelby County.

And yet, county school officials are allowed to trot out their time-worn argument about overcrowding, as they have done most recently with their latest educational innovation, the proposal to open the so-called Schnucks’ School in an abandoned grocery store south of Germantown.

Ironically, areas characterized by sprawl and the derivative development it produces are represented by county commissioners who tend to vote against tax increases and argue for cuts in government expenses, while it is their district that is largely responsible for the county’s climbing debt. This is especially true any time the subject turns to county schools.

But Commissioner Lillard is not alone in being deaf to the truth and blind to the facts. That’s because the county school district’s core contention that its schools are overcrowded appears questionable.

In the end, it’s possible for any school district – including Memphis City Schools – to paint a picture of overcrowded schools. All it needs to do is to adjust its classroom capacities. For example, to produce overcrowded schools, Shelby County Schools calculates capacities at 15.5 students for each elementary school classroom; 18 students for each middle school classroom; and 20 students for each high school classroom.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools bases its capacities on 20 students per elementary classroom; 24 students per middle school classroom; and 28 students per high school classroom.

In other words, by adjusting the classroom capacity, a school district can essentially determine whether it’s overcrowded or not. In fact, Memphis City Schools could simply adopt the county district’s equation and then no schools would be closed under Superintendent Johnson’s Five-Year Comprehensive Plan.

What’s most disturbing is that so many of the positions of Shelby County Schools seem rooted in simply, old-fashioned manipulation – political, religious, financial and racial. And as is often the case when politicians serve a narrow political base so dutifully, it’s all the taxpayers who end up paying a price.


Larry said...

Did you consider the fact that over time that Memphis has annexed several schools?

If the county still were counting the schools it had when the school population 48,000, how many would be in the system now?

So you see, while the total number hasn't changed much, the county's capacity shrank because of King Willie's occupation of Cordova, Hickory Hill, Berryhill, etc.

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry: We in fact have referred to the impact of annexation in previous posts, but the issue here is that the county schools continues to get more funding and to build schools at questionable sites based on their contention that there system is growing. It's not, regardless of the reason, and someone needs to point it out when they continually ask for more and more money.

And it's hardly a city occupation of these areas when every one knows moving in that they will be part of the city of Memphis.

As we've mentioned before, the problem was created when county government, in a fit of political fervor, agreed to provide urban-type services in these areas to be annexed. It runs counter to basic government principles and good growth planning, and this single decisions was a major factor in promoting sprawl. SCC

mike said...

I think Larry has a good point here: annexation obscures and deforms cross-year comparisons. The County's area of responsibility is getting smaller and smaller; the number of school buildings they have (assuming no new construction) also gets smaller and smaller as the City annexes some. But the population of students decreases by only 5% or so. I think deeper study is called for here.

Also, are you actually criticising the County for demanding lower student-teacher ratios? It sure sounds that way. Or are you arguing that they've adjusted the ratio numbers over the years to their own benefit?

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: No area of government has more data than schools, and because of it, it is easy to compare very specifically the impacts of annexation, demographic trends, etc. But that's not what we're talking about here. This isn't about the impact of annexation of county schools. It's about being truthful in calculating capacities, and be assured that this does not mean that the county has lower teacher to student ratios. It is an end-all, be-all political gambit, nothing more and nothing less. SCC

Smart City Consulting said...

Oh, just to be clear, this isn't about teacher-student ratio. This is about school capacities, including design and functional capacities, etc. Teacher-student ratio is something altogether different.

Larry said...

First let's clear up something. No municipality has a "right" to annex. If the judges were to strictly follow state law, annexation would be much more difficult.

TCA 6-51-102 clearly states that a municipality may forcibly annex only "when it appears that the prosperity of such municipality and territory will be materially retarded and the safety and welfare of the inhabitants and property endangered, after notice and public hearing, by ordinance, may extend its corporate limits by annexation of such territory adjoining its existing boundaries as may be deemed necessary for the welfare of the residents and property owners of the affected territory as well as the municipality as a whole".

Who believes that the prosperity of Memphis AND Cordova would have been retarded AND the safety and welfare of the inhabitants AND property were endangered without annexation?

Now, back to schools. I just thinking logically here. If the school population of the county schools has remained relatively stable, but schools themselves were annexed by the city and are no longer serving the county students, then it I can see how the remaining schools would have an overcrowding problem.

A simpler solution would be to offer vouchers for the amount of money spent per student by the county school and see if the private schools could absorb some of the overflow. GASP ... a non-gov't based solution! Hmmmmm, can't have that! lol

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry, the students who were formerly in the county schools then become city school students. There is no overflow that are crowded into county schools. And cities that have been strongholds for large student populations, like Germantown, are actually getting smaller. There just isn't a way to make the point that the remaining schools are overcrowded. As for annexation, if there is no right to annex. There is no right for people to be able to camp anywhere they want and expect government to deliver urban level services to them. If they don't want to be annexed, they should stay on "well water," have rural fire and ambulance service, etc. Annexation was designed to bring them a higher level of public service - until county government made the political decision to deliver it, which is the beginning of the slippery slope that has it in its present budgetary position. SCC

Larry said...

Grasshooper, you're making an assumption of facts not in evidence. Annexation doesn't follow the county school boundaries. I've noticed several times in the past years when the complaint was that some students would have to switch because the school was annexed (tho now they usually let the ones currently attending to continue to do so but any new ones have to go to another school).

Still, the logic holds. If the number of students in the county remains constant but the number of schools decreases, then the remaining school must have more students in them than previously. If those remaining schools were already near or at capacity, then you would have an overcrowding problem.

As for annexation, the law is clear and should be adhered to.

Now, I would think that you would want to make it more difficult for people "to camp anywhere they want to". If Memphis were to withhold "services" for any area in the county, then perhaps sprawl would slow down ... and isn't that you're about?

Also, Memphis can and does charge a fair fee for providing any services such as sewage not only to those in the county but also to those in other muncipalities that tie into the sewage treatment.

Altho MLG&W is owned by the Memphis, it isn't a gov't agency. MLG&W provides services regardless of municipal boundaries. Memphis doesn't have the right to take over Germantown simply because MLG&W provides electricity or because they tie in the sewage treatment.

Most county residents who were forcibly occupied by Memphis were satisfied with rural metro services and much more satisfied with the Sherrif's Office providing law enforcement. They paid a fee for fire protection with which they were satisfied. They didn't want street lights nor did they need for Memphis to provide garbage pickup. They were charged a fair fee for water and sewage.

So, Grasshopper, identify the "urban services" provided by the county strictly to county residents not covered by fees that led to current budget problems.

Are schools an "urban service"?

How about law enforcement? By far the biggest portion of the Sheriff's budget is the jail which serves Memphis too.

Schools and the jail are the biggest costs for the county ... oh, and paying for the Pyramid (Memphis) and the Forum (Memphis).

Your logic and justification for allowing the municipalities to annex at will are ... at best ... weak.

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry, It seems like you've covering the waterfront with this one, and sometimes, we can't exactly tell what your position is, but here goes. We'll return to the subject of county schools in a few days, but first, we of course know that annexation boundaries do not follow individual school attendance zones. However, they come closer than you think, because after all, the annexation boundaries are no secret, and the city district at least keeps them in mind with its location decisions. The new schools being called for by the county system are not the result of steady enrollment crowded into fewer schools. It is the result of steady enrollment in more and more schools.

What's amazing is the double standard used for the school systems. The county gets approval for more and more schools when there is little reason for them, except the obvious political ones. More to the point is that the county school district has historically made its decisions in light of developer influence, not educational policy. Schools are routinely placed in the wrong places (see Arlington School) and are selected by developers (see Hyneman connection to Schnucks school). Nothing more, nothing less. It's just strange that the county system continues to drive educational policy for this community when it will essentially be a small, modest system that only encompasses the small towns in a few years as a result of the annexation agreements signed by all the governments of Shelby County.

The urban services that were provided, not by Memphis but by Shelby County, have everything to do with level of service. County government provided volunteer fire departments and they worked fine until 1976 when the Shelby County Fire Department was created, and an urban, rather than a rural, level of fire services was provided by county government. Mistake #1. Then, county government followed this up with a higher level of law enforcement, instead of the rural level that it had been, and even more amazing, it provided free of charge law enforcement to some of the county's towns (although it of course did not do this for Memphis). Mistake #2. Then, county government decided that it would fund road construction within the county towns (although it did not do the same within Memphis). Mistake #3. Then, county government decided to pay for libraries within the towns (while it did not do the same within Memphis). Mistake #4. Then, county government built schools at the whims of the school board and the small towns, regardless of what locations made more sense, and without the taxpayers of these towns putting in one cent of their own town property tax. Mistake #5. When the city of Memphis tried to control growth through the extension of the sewers, county government intervened and got them extended to the Grays Creek area. Mistake #6.

The list goes on and on. But as the former head of the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department said, "Yes, we're a mandated service, but we can provide Chevrolet service or Cadillac service." Unfortunately, county government never provided the Chevrolet and these decisions and others fueled sprawl and the county's debt. You need only look at the the sources of the county's debt to see the facts of the matter. About 70 percent of the debt has been generated by the district outside of the City of Memphis. It is a vicious cycle of incentives for sprawl, the realities of sprawl, the costs of sprawl, etc.


Larry said...

Every county has a school system. Not every municipality in a county has its own system. At some point, Memphis decided it would be better off with its own school system. The mistake made by the county was not to form a special school district so that taxes could be levied on areas outside of Memphis solely for county schools.

If the funds come out of the general budget for the schools then an appropriate portion must be sent to the Memphis schools. That's how we wound up with 75% of the county education budget going to Memphis schools ... and how we wound up with a huge debt because for every dollar raised for the county schools, three had to be raised and given the Memphis schools. Only recently has the county begun to assess a special tax on county residents that strictly goes to county schools.

Of course, at any time, the Memphis City School board could dissolve itself and turn it all over to the county.

Now let's go back to some numbers. I don't know the real numbers so I'll throw some out to use as an example. If the county has 44,000 students and 20 schools, that's an avg of 2,200 students/school. Now let's say that Memphis annexes two schools but due to fed up citizens fleeing Memphis, the county total remains at 44,000. Now we have more than 2,400/school. If the max number per school is 2,000 students ... then we are in an overcrowding situation even tho the total number of students didn't change. The obvious solution is a new school.

I can't speak to how the county is choosing where to build since I don't live in the county. However, the county school board doesn't appear to be nearly the spectacle of "Call in the Clowns" that the Memphis School Board is.

As a former sheriff's deputy, I can tell you that the only municipalities that don't have their own police forces are Arlington and Lakeland. They do pay the county a fee for the sheriff's department to patrol their areas. It's not free of charge! I can tell you that when I patrolled the districts that included Lakeland for example, I didn't spend much time in Lakeland ... just wasn't much crime there!

I can also tell you that we covered a whole lot more area with a whole lot fewer people than MPD.

Now, the sheriff's office doesn't patrol per se inside any municipality which has its own police force. It does, however, have jurisdiction anywhere in county to make stops and arrests.

The sheriff's office serves all the municipalities in several ways. The metro DUI is in the whole county (including Memphis), the fugtive squad serves warrants in the whole county (including Memphis), the gang unit serves the whole county (including Memphis), and the sheriff's office often has saturations inside Memphis.

The sheriff runs the jail to which Memphis takes the people it arrests.

Actually, I prefer the way the county handles their Fire Dept. Each household is assessed a monthly fee for fire protection. This is the way it should be. I'd like to see Memphis do something similar. That way the money would be earmarked for fire protection rather than come from the general fund. In turn, Willie couldn't lay off firemen to balance the budget while keeping Janet Hooks employed.

I don't know the history of building roads inside the municipalities except that I remember from history that the very first road from Memphis to county line was built by the county. I don't know whether is something new or a continuation of an older policy. Either way, I could agree to reviewing the policy and seeing if it is justified.

If there is one road that the county is building that I don't think is justified, it is the road thru Shelby Farms.

I believe that Wharton has taken the county out of the library and park business except for maybe those actually outside of the municipalities.

I don't have a problem with the county extending sewers as long as the extension is paid for by the developers. The residents who use that service still pay a fee ... and still no justification for Memphis to annex at will.

If I recall correctly, the two biggest items in the county budgets (besides debt payment) are the schools and sheriffs office (of which the biggest portion is the jail).

None of what you have stated provides a reason for Memphis or any other municipality to annex at will.