By William J. Busler, Ph.D.
In the previous two articles, we saw that the citizens of Bartlett must choose between remaining in the Unified Shelby County School District of 159,000 students, or establishing (through the first referendum) our own Municipal School District (MSD) of 9,000 students. The funding for the MSD could be obtained by setting aside (not necessarily assessing) a portion of property taxes equal to a 15-cent increase in taxes ($75 on a $200,000 home), or by increasing the local sales tax by 0.5% (50 cents per $100) through the second referendum.
For Property Values: Most of us remember when we moved out here, there were signs everywhere touting “Shelby County Schools”, i.e. “not Memphis City Schools”. That was undoubtedly a big selling point for the development of this whole area. It is generally understood that good schools lead to a stable community with high property values. Real estate agents in our area have estimated that establishing our own MSD would enhance property values by 5 to 15%, while failure to do so would decrease them by that amount. This would amount to about $20,000 on a $200,000 home.
For School Quality: The Memphis City Schools System has a 4% success rate in preparing students for admission to college. (The criterion for preparedness is an ACT score of 21 out of a possible 36. Actually, students with an ACT of 21 would not get very far in a rigorous college science or engineering program.) The present Shelby County Schools success rate for college preparedness, 20%, only looks good in comparison to the MCS rate. Objectively, it shouldn’t be too hard for a Bartlett MSD to improve on these percentages.
Property: The opinion of the SES consultants and their legal advisors, based on numerous precedents, is that the school buildings really belong to the students being educated in them, and that whatever entity is performing that educational function has the right to take control of the property, without cost or obligation, and to hold it in the public trust. It’s not even clear who owns the properties now – the Shelby County government, the Shelby County School Board, some other entity, or indeed the students themselves. The SES report notes that MCS received 44 schools from SCS following annexations without making any direct payment to the county system, establishing a trend that it says should be followed for municipal districts. However, legal objections may be raised by opponents of MSD’s. If Bartlett were required to purchase at book value the 11 school buildings within its limits, a 53-cent property tax increase could be needed to cover $65 million in debt.
Constitutionality: Memphis, its Board of Education, and the Shelby County Commission have raised the question of the constitutionality of the laws enabling MSD’s to be formed. But Federal Judge Hardy Mays determined that the issue was not “ripe”, and dismissed those claims.
What about support services? New MSD’s have at least three major options regarding the provision of support services, such as cafeteria, janitorial, maintenance, transportation, etc.:
1. Hire all staff and provide all support services directly.
2. Contract with private corporations which specialize in providing school support services.
3. Enter into Cooperative Educational Contracts (CEC’s) with other MSD’s or with the Unified SCS to provide such services.
Must students attend schools within their districts? It is very common for school districts to have “reciprocal agreements” whereby students who live in one district may attend a school in another district. The governments of Bartlett and Arlington, for example, are amenable to this kind of exchange program. However, the actual details will be up to the elected School Boards in each municipality. The governments will keep their hands off such day-to-day decisions.
What about students in unincorporated areas? Schools in unincorporated areas, such as Bolton High School, will technically be under the Unified Shelby County Board. But Bartlett is actually planning to have many of those students attend Bartlett High School. The County funding will probably follow them to Bartlett.
Our leaders are reluctant to wait until all legal details have been completely worked out. That could take years. Meanwhile, either the Unified System or the Bartlett system will go into effect in August 2013.