Municipal School Districts Will Likely Become Law Within Two Weeks
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.
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.
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 & Opportunity 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.
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.
Commissioner 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.
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!
- Bill to create charter schools panel advances (sfgate.com)