Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Shelby County Schools Gets "F" For Special District Legislation

It’s hard to see anything special in Shelby County Schools’ bill in the Tennessee Legislature to become a special school district.

More the point, it seems like another one of the county district’s regular gambits aimed at achieving some of its favorite goals – power and control.

Ironically, the loss of some of Shelby County’s most talented Nashville operatives to the Tennessee Waltz investigation gives Shelby County Schools an awfully good chance of getting its ill-conceived legislation approved. In fact, some prognosticators on Capitol Hill say that only one vote may separate the school politicians from success with their bill.


It all seems so amazing and offers a revealing view into the lawmaking process, because at this point, the discussion about the special school district is more about opinions than facts. And yet, Republican lawmakers are all but fighting to get to the front of the line to endorse the legislation.

To make things even more interesting, one of them – Ron Lollar – is also a member of the Shelby County School Board. Despite this, none of his colleagues – always outspoken on the alleged propensity of Democrats to serve two elected offices - even bothers to question his conflicting loyalties. As one commentator has said, if a legislator can get into trouble for using his state office for his personal benefit, is it too much of a stretch to argue that a legislator shouldn’t be able to use his state office for his political benefit in another office?

Of course, when Mr. Lollar entered the race for state representative, he promised to resign his county school seat. But upon election, he ignored his promise and refused to step down from the county office. (Campaigning as a Religious Right candidate, he apparently forgot the passage in the Book of Matthews that says that “no man can serve two masters.”)

Strange Bedfellows

It’s ironic that the Shelby County Schools bill is being supported by metro districts like Nashville-Davidson, because only Shelby County, among Tennessee’s metros, doesn’t have a consolidated school system, and consolidation is a Satanic plot, to hear the county school board members tell it.

These other urban districts have little in common with the county district, but they are lured to the proposed bill by the potential to have the taxing authority promised by the bill.

Regrettably, Memphis City Schools has been reticent to weigh in on this bill, but it seems that it is now recognizing the negative impact that it could have on the nation’s 21st largest school district. With an issue that prompts more questions than answers, Supt. Carol Johnson and the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners have taken a well-modulated and mature approach – they have asked for time so definitive research can be undertaken to address the mountain of questions that are left unanswered.

Facts, Just The Facts

It’s hard to argue that an action of this magnitude doesn’t deserve more thoughtful study and analysis. Perhaps, at the end of it, supporters of the special district might even have something besides political expediency to inspire them.

On Capitol Hill, the fiscal note filed with the bill should be red flag enough for legislators. As it pointed out, if this bill is passed, revenues and expenditures would be shifted from county government to the special school district, and this would result in some unnecessary expense to taxpayers; however, the main warning was that “any new special school district would likely have a lower bond rating than for other local governments, resulting in higher interest rates and increased costs to the district in an amount that cannot reasonably be quantified.”

While questions about public education and taxing authority are serious enough to deserve detailed research, it’s equally important to weigh the issue in terms of government accountability, government efficiency and equity in tax policy.

A Messy Divorce

If approved, the county school district would divorce itself from Shelby County Government. No longer would it have to submit a budget to Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton and the county board of commissioners, no longer would it have to answer questions from Mayor Wharton and the commissioners, no longer would county government issue bonds for new schools and no longer would the county set the tax rate for education. Rather, all of these responsibilities would rest with the county school district.

In other words, the Shelby County Schools Board – known for its erratic decision-making, for racially-based decisions that are resegregating some county schools and building schools that are built too big and at the wrong locations – would be given the power to levy taxes for its operations.

No longer would decisions on the amount of taxes earmarked for education rest with a public body – the county board of commissioners – that has to balance the needs of schools with the other vital public service needs of Shelby County.

The 75% Solution

It’s worth keeping in mind that despite the amount of media attention spent on public education, for every family with a child in public schools, there are three with no children in school. If the special district bill is passed, the county school board tips the scales in favor of the 25 percent with children in its schools, because the tax rate set for education would be set in a vacuum free from equally important needs of public health, The Med, parks and green space and emergency services.

In other words, if the bill is approved, it will layer on another level of taxation in addition to those that exist now. Put another way, a citizen in a municipality outside Memphis – say, Collierville – would get a tax bill from that municipality, a tax bill from Shelby County and a tax bill from the Shelby County Schools.

If this isn’t confusing enough, the county district also has expressed interest in using the special district to freeze its district boundaries. As we’ve pointed out before, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the boundaries are already frozen. That came about seven years ago as a result of the setting of the Urban Growth Boundaries in the wake of Chapter 1101 and the “tiny towns” controversy.

Freeze Out

For a couple of decades, freezing the county school boundaries has been held out as a magic answer to turning the tide of the thousands of residents moving out of Shelby County. Again, since only about one-fourth of county residents actually have kids in public schools, this seems to be an overemphasized reason for the exodus (crime, corruption and tax burden would seem more pressing concerns).

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the current county school district boundaries are frozen. If so, the area just south of Germantown in Southeast Shelby County would remain as part of the Shelby County School district. That means that when the area is annexed by the City of Memphis, these students would remain in the county’s schools.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Since they are citizens of Memphis, is it fair for them to pay taxes for Memphis City Schools if they can’t attend them? As citizens of Memphis, would they have the right to vote for board members of Memphis City Schools even though their children don’t attend city schools?

Questions And More Questions

As citizens of Memphis, would they even have the right to vote on the members of the Shelby County School Board, which sets policies for the school attended by their children?

Under No Child Left Behind laws, students are given some rights, such as access to tutoring, transfers to higher performing schools and more. Would students living within Memphis but attending Shelby County Schools have the right to take advantage of the services within the city school district?

And the questions go on and on. That’s why we think Memphis City Schools’ approach is wise. There’s no need to rush to judgment, and it seems a reasonable investment of time to gather more information and determine the facts about a special school district.

At this point, Shelby County Schools hasn’t made a persuasive case in support of the special district, and its past record erodes any confidence that the public should have that its position represents the best interests of this community.


Anonymous said...

I agree that this is perhaps one of the dumbest pieces of legislation in many years that directly affects Shelby County for the reasons you mention and the fact that it is simply shortsighted, offering a long term "solution" to a current, and by no means permanent, "problem." Think of St. Louis City's divorce from St. Louis County in the latter part of the 19th century when you think about this.

Non Shelby legislators seem to be reluctant to approve bills like this when there is significant opposition from within the County. Therefore, would it not be best for opponents to lobby the Shelby delegation, especially those whose districts are primarily in the City, and members of the City School Board to express their opposition to the Special District?

Anonymous said...

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