William McCaig has three kids in Shelby County Schools in Bartlett and he doesn’t want to see those schools merged with the Memphis City Schools. He wants—
“Local control,” McCaig said. And he’s willing to pay more taxes for it.
“Yes, property taxes or sales taxes,” McCaig said.
Vickie Keith doesn’t have any kids in Bartlett schools, but she’d also be willing to pay more taxes for a Bartlett school district.
“Absolutely. No problem,” Keith said.
Both McCaig and Keith were in Bartlett City Hall on Wednesday night to listen to Southern Educational Strategies, LLC, a consulting group, deliver a report on whether or not Bartlett can start its own municipal school district. The consultants considered three questions—Is a municipal school district legal? Can the town run it? And can they pay for it?
“The answer to those questions are yes, yes, and yes. That’s what we found,” James Mitchell, Jr., one of the consultants (and a former Superintendent of the Shelby County Schools) told Bartlett’s Mayor and board of aldermen.
Mitchell did a lot of presentations this week. That’s because, once it became clear the Memphis City Schools were going to consolidate with the Shelby County Schools, all six of the suburbs outside of Memphis hired Mitchell’s firm. Millington hired the firm last, so their report isn’t ready yet, but the reports for Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Lakeland are out.
And in all those reports the consultants say a municipal school district is possible.
Bartlett would be the biggest municipal school district with about 9,000 kids, followed by Germantown, Collierville, and Arlington. Lakeland would be the smallest, with only one school.
“It’s not a free ride,” Mitchell told his clients. “The state rule says you have to spend an amount that is equal to a 15 cent increase on your property tax. It does not say you have to raise your tax.”
According to the reports, Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville could pay for a municipal school district without raising their property taxes. The consultants suggested, instead, they could raise their sales taxes by ½ cent. Arlington could offset a property tax increase with a sales tax increase, but it can’t get the full amount it needs. Lakeland currently does not have a property tax; the town would have to create one to form a municipal school district.
Another important element in these reports says that if the suburbs start their own municipal school districts, they will be handed the school buildings within their borders for free. The consultants hired a law firm to do some legal analysis. They based this opinion on a Tennessee Supreme Court decision and what happened to some county school buildings when Memphis annexed the land around them.
“So the weight of legal authority, plus past-practice says the buildings should go with the children,” Mitchell told Bartlett.
But that could still be challenged in court.
Mitchell told the suburbs if they go for this—they could open their municipal school districts in September of 2013, when the Memphis City Schools and the Shelby County Schools consolidate.
There will be public hearings in the suburbs early next month. If the towns still want to pursue municipal school districts after that, each town will have to vote on the issue. The consultants recommended a May referendum.