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Municipal School Districts Will Likely Become Law Within Two Weeks

April 13, 2013
got school choice?

Want to know what the heck’s really happening with Shelby County schools? We thought so.  That’s why we attended  “What the Heck’s Going on with the Shelby County School System – What Are Your Options?” Thursday night. The spaghetti-and-straight talk event was sponsored by Sober House Homeless Mission and Charlotte Bergmann’s CharlottePAC.

Here’s what you missed.

According to expert panelists representing the Tennessee legislature, Shelby County Commission, and the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, three major bills are about to become law:

1) The Big Kahuna. The bill lifting the ban on new municipal school districts. Passage of this law will enable Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, Bartlett, Millington, and Lakeland to move forward with formation of their own school districts.  A related bill eliminating the current limitation of six school districts  per county is expected to pass without opposition, so little Lakeland need not fear being elbowed out by its bigger bro’s. All Shelby County suburban municipalities will have to hold new referenda and school board elections, as last year’s elections were thrown out by Federal District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

The bill will come to a final vote in the House and Senate chambers on Monday night. With only 50 votes needed to pass and 53 bill sponsors, the math says it’s a done deal.

Possible spoiler:  another lawsuit is said to be waiting in the wings, to be filed if/when the muni bill passes. Oh, yay.

choice=opp

2)The charter school authorization reform bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark White, giving charter school applicants a better chance of being approved in Shelby County and four other low-performing Tennessee counties (Davidson, Knox, Hardeman and Hamilton). If passed as expected, charter schools rejected by local boards of education will be able to appeal to a  nine-member  panel appointed by the Governor and Speakers of the Tennessee House and Senate.

3) Virtual school enrollment cap. Enrollment in new virtual schools will be limited to 1500. Schools that meet performance targets can expand; after three years of sub-par performance, schools could be closed or have enrollment capped by the Commissioner of Education. Virtual schools are public schools, available to all Tennessee parents, and  utilized by many homeschoolers. Tuition is paid from State educational funds.

Two other closely watched bills are off the table for this session.

Governor Haslam’s school vouchers bill, the  Tennessee Choice & school choice scholarshipsOpportunity Scholarship Act, was derailed by the efforts of well meaning (but politically discourteous) lawmakers who wanted to expand the Governor’s fairly restrictive bill. Ken Hoover explained that  Governor Haslam’s bill, the result of a year-long task force study, reflected the Governor’s preference for  new initiatives to begin modestly and be of “manageable” size. The bill  would have allowed up to 5,000  students now attending the bottom five percent of Tennessee public schools to receive scholarships (vouchers) to attend qualifying private schools in school year 2013-2014. The bill allowed for phasing in of the voucher system over four years, capping the number of vouchers at 20,000 in 2016-2017. Republican Senators Brian Kelsey and  Delores Gresham pressed hard for amendments  that would have broadened eligibility, allowed Category IV (church-related) schools to participate, and eliminated the fourth-year limitation of 20,000.

Many lawmakers, including Speaker of the Senate Ron Ramsey, favored a more generous bill than the Governor’s. When Governor Haslam’s bill was amended beyond his comfort level, he chose to withdraw it, surprising everyone who believed that the expanded bill would pass. Had voucher-boosters filed a competing bill  (preferred protocol over loading amendments on the original), one of the bills might have survived. Instead, 5,000 children lost a chance at entering a better school this August. Expect another round in this particular ring next session.

The bill lifting the ban on the formation of special school districts also will not be voted on in this session.

Photo by Edgar Babian

Photo by Edgar Babian

Thursday night’s well-informed panel included Shelby Co. Commissioner Chris Thomas; Germantown schools activist Ken Hoover, subbing for Rep. Mark White (Rep. White was detained in Nashville winding up legislative matters as the session enters its final days); Matt Throckmorton, Executive Director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Assn.; and homeschool mom Brenda Fowler. Shelby Co. Unified School Board member Kevin Woods was also scheduled to appear, but cancelled at the last  minute. Back in River City’s own Eddie Settles served as MC.

mcs scsCommissioner Thomas spoke candidly about the problems associated with the merger of the Memphis and Shelby County schools.  He was elected in 2010, before the Memphis City Schools voted to surrender its charter. Commissioner Thomas noted that he was one of the three commissioners (with Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland) who voted against consolidation in August 2011. He was one of two voting against the lawsuit filed by the County Commission against multiple parties to block suburban municipalities from creating separate school districts.

“I wanted to focus on the city schools, because they are the ones that needed the most help,” Commission Thomas explained. He recommended dividing the troubled MCS system into five smaller districts, believing that smaller districts would be more responsive to change and closer to the families and communities they served. “We have strayed from our core mission of helping the kids who need help in the Memphis schools,” he said. “Taking on a merger is a distraction from that.”

Commissioner Thomas pointed out, “This is the largest public school merger in U.S. history.”  Panelists Ken Hoover and Matt Throckmorton agreed that larger is not better when it comes to schools and school districts. Ken Hoover said, “Everything gets worse when you get bigger.  It’s not so much an administrative problem with the Memphis City Schools as it is a scale problem. When things get too big, people and things get lost. There is a disconnect between the board of education and the students.  That distance creates an opportunity for the benefit of the adults, not the children.”

As a steering committee member for My  Germantown Schools, Mr. Hoover said,  “I can’t hide. Germantown is only five miles from one end to the other. People see me in the grocery store and ask me about the schools. I get questions every week.”

City versus county politics renders the County Commission dysfunctional and is keeping the (so-called) Unified School Board from getting anything substantial done, according to Commissioner Thomas. He likened the consolidation of MCS and SCS to a backwards business merger, with the acquired company (in this case, MCS)  attempting to control the consolidated organization. He also noted that the recent County Commission decision to  increase the Unified School Board from seven members to 13 is an attempt to ensure that Memphis-based members control decision-making, with nine  Memphis-based member districts and four representing Shelby County residents. Such a change is ill-timed and likely unnecessary, given pending legislation in Nashville to permit spin-off of  suburban municipal districts.  If the munis are formed, the Shelby County system will consist only of the old MCS schools plus unincorporated areas of Shelby County.  Such a system would not likely seat school board representatives from the municipal districts.

school-tax

Both Commissioner Thomas and Ken Hoover told the audience to expect tax increases as a result of the schools consolidation.  “They said that a merger would be more efficient,” the Commissioner said with a wry grin. “Then (the Unified School Board) asked us for $150 million more (for their 2013-2014 budget). We told them to come up with something realistic. That’s down to $60 million now, or maybe as low as $40 million.”

Later in the discussion he stated that funding the additional $40-60 million requested would require a 35% tax increase.  “I will  not vote for a tax increase,” he said, but acknowledged that sufficient votes exist on the Commission to pass a 9.9% tax hike. After allowing for $53 million in loss of property taxes due to lower 2013 appraisals, plus other county expenses including court-ordered improvements in our juvenile justice system, Commissioner Thomas estimated there would be only around $5 million left for the schools.

“Taxes might just go up five percent this year,” Ken Hoover said, “but expect them to go up another five percent the following year, and keep on  going.”

Part II of our recap of “What the Heck’s Going on with the Shelby County School System – What Are Your Options?” will include panelists’ remarks on charter schools and audience Q&A. Don’t miss it!

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2013 4:48 am

    Thank you for letting us know what is happening. Really enjoyed this article.

  2. April 13, 2013 12:13 pm

    You said, regarding vouchers: ” 5,000 children lost a chance at entering a better school this August.” That is not entirely accurate.
    Don’t you really mean 5,000 children lost a chance to go to *private* schools on the state voucher dollar? These 5,000 still have choice school transfer options to go to other high-performing *public* schools, they just don;t get to pick private schools with those public voucher dollars.
    You know that I believe the public dollars ought to stay out of private schools. But these children did not lose all their options.

    • April 13, 2013 11:09 pm

      Fair enough, Darrell. The Governor’s bill restricted the 5,000 first-year vouchers to children who 1) qualified for reduced-price lunches and 2) would otherwise attend one of the lowest 5% performing schools. Those are now ASD schools, and I expect great results from them. So, while we must agree to disagree on the general issue of vouchers, I acknowledge the arguable editorial comment.

  3. April 13, 2013 2:33 pm

    Thank you so much for such an excellent summary of the event. Thank you for caring and for coming. I look forward to your summary of the Q&A.

  4. April 13, 2013 3:35 pm

    Great article, Eve. Thanks for writing up this event. A great deal of good information was available to those who took the opportunity to attend last Thursday night. Plus the spaghetti was fantastic. Looking forward to the next one.

    • April 13, 2013 11:23 pm

      Thanks, Robin. It was truly an enlightening forum, and the spaghetti was indeed fantastic, served by lovely and gracious ladies. I’m all for making it a series!

  5. April 13, 2013 7:02 pm

    Be wary whenever a politician smiles. Be very wary if it’s a “wry grin.”

    This blog reports at this meeting which purportedly was designed to inform, Shelby County Commissioner Chris Thomas said:

    “”They said that a merger would be more efficient,’ the Commissioner said with a wry grin. ‘Then (the Unified School Board) asked us for $150 million more (for their 2013-2014 budget). We told them to come up with something realistic. That’s down to $60 million now, or maybe as low as $40 million.’”

    The implication is that those who claimed a merged district would be more efficient were incorrect. I do not take a side specifically on that issue because the shape of the new district and its budget has not been finalized. However, facts, which one would hope those on the panel know and, if they are people of good will attempting to inform the public should disclose in regard to the preliminary budget figures should not give a basis for the wry grin made after the statement.

    Efficiency is essentially spending, not revenue, but if you provide the same service with less revenue, you must be gaining in efficiency. So here are some facts that might shed more light on the comment. With the merger, Memphis is no longer obligated and, according to the Mayor and city council members, no longer will provide approximately $60-million a year to the school system. The governor has proposed a 1.5% salary increase in teacher and other certified staff in K-12 public schools, which is in addition to 2.5% implemented in the current fiscal year. When the state mandates teacher pay hikes it does not fully fund them. The one-and-a-half percent pay hike is estimated to cost the merged district about $9-million in local funds. So, with the city’s funding going away and the state proposing a mandated teacher salary increase, the merged district is easily something like $69-million dollars in the hole through no part of its own, given the merger.

    Therefore, if the proposed school budget does come in at 60 or 40 million dollars above current funding, and it has a built in funding deficit of $69-million, it could be well argued that the merged district is showing substantially more efficient operation. Wry grins or not.

    It should be noted that at the February 4, 2013, school administrations’ briefing for school board members on the proposed budget, it was estimating something in the neighborhood of a $65-million gap. The $150-million more to which one of the panelists referred was really about $145-million (funny how the numbers creep away from reality in the direction most favorable to the position of the person speaking, isn’t it?). That number came from a board member’s proposal to submit a rough budget outline to the commission without regard to cost. At the February 4 meeting Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken was clearly frustrated with the direction the board was going. At the special called school board meeting February 12, chairman Billy Orgel pleaded with his fellow board members to be reasonable rather than submit a budget outline with a $145-million dollar funding gap. Nevertheless, the board voted to submit that outline, which any reasonable analysis by an informed observer would know was dead before arrival.

    The fact is, we do not know what the final school budget will be, what the Commission will fund, and the resulting quality of the education delivered. At this point, therefore, we cannot know the degree of efficiency or lack of it the merged system will have.

    We can sometimes know, by careful observation, when we aren’t being afforded a full measure of knowledge about the situation by people that are willing to limit information so that their position might seem the most knowledgeable and forthcoming when it may well not be.

  6. April 13, 2013 7:21 pm

    The 1.5% state proposed increase in teacher salaries may more closely equate to a $6.7-million local funding requirement rather than the $9-million I noted above. If so, that would change the built-in fiscal gap at the time of the merger to around $66.7-million. The analysis remains the same, if as stated the board of education does finally submit a budget with a $60-million dollar gap or lower, it still is suggesting it can do its job more efficiently.

    • April 13, 2013 11:17 pm

      Gee, I’m getting in all kinds of trouble for my editorial comments today. Methinks I shall refrain from describing facial expressions in the future! I certainly agree that we don’t know what the school budget will be. If it proves that the consolidated district holds itself to a high level of efficiency, we’d all be thrilled. Quite surprised, some of us, but nonetheless thrilled.

      • April 16, 2013 3:27 pm

        My issue is not with the reporting of the nature of the smile.

        While the blog’s description of the nature of the smile may have been an editorial comment and the smile might be subject to various interpretations, the trouble I mean to apply is to those who, for apparent purposes of influencing people to their point of view, provided incorrect or limited information to the public when they had, or should have had, additional and/or correct information.

        We may have an adversarial model for our courts in which one side may present only items favorable to its side. In public discourse among elected officials and governmental employees engaging in conversation because of their governmental position, however, the model should be full disclosure, accuracy and ethical conduct.

      • April 16, 2013 8:15 pm

        I’m inclined to give Commissioner Thomas a pass until all the numbers shake out and we see whether or not there are efficiencies. In the context of his informal comments, I did not take offense at his including what may or may not, at the end of the day, be a partisan remark, or even an incorrect one. While I applaud and support the ideal you set forth for pubic discourse, this wasn’t a formal debate. I take all politicians’ remarks with a grain of salt. Having low expectations keeps my blood pressure down.

  7. joe saino permalink
    April 13, 2013 11:44 pm

    Eve, this was an excellent post and a good analysis of the situation. I am still for an expanded voucher program and more education competition. I am not sure why Kelsey and Gresham did not accept the foot in the door coucher program. Possibly they thought the Governor would back down. Any way we can hope that vouchers will come back in the future.

    There will be more lawsuits if the law allowing more educational districts passes. Keep up the good informational work.

    Regards, Joe

    • April 14, 2013 11:39 pm

      Joe, you made my day! I very much appreciate your kind words and encouragement. Thanks for following us!

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