By William J. Busler, Ph.D.
For the past five weeks, we have been looking closely at the upcoming referenda on the August 2nd ballot (see image below). The original plan was to have a summary, with opinions and recommendations, as the eighth and final article. However, since early voting will be starting on July 13th, we decided to run that column this week, followed by two “post-referendum” pieces.
First of all, it must be clearly understood that the present school system in Bartlett will cease to exist as of August 2013. What we have now will not continue. Bartlett schools will no longer be operated by an all-suburban County Board overseeing 56,000 students in 52 schools.
Due to the “hostile surrender” of the Memphis City Schools’ charter, its 220 schools (and 103,000 students) will be merged with the 52 County schools (and those 56,000 students). There will be a new “Unified” Shelby County School Board, consisting of 13 members. Most likely, 9 of those Board members will be from within Memphis; undoubtedly, many of them will be former MCS Board members who gave up on their own system.
If we do not pass Referendum No. 1, all the public schools in Bartlett will be run by the Unified SCS Board, as part of an enormous 272-school, 159,000-student system.
The only alternative is to pass Referendum No. 1, and form our own Municipal School District. This would consist of 11 schools and 9,000 students, and would be administered by a 5-member School Board of Bartlett citizens, working through our own Superintendent.
Such a school system would be vastly superior to the expanded Memphis system (which is what the Unified system would actually be). Their record is a 4% success rate in preparing students for college. The County rate is 20%, which is much better, but it’s hard to imagine that we can’t do a lot better than that with our own MSD.
Since good schools lead to good communities, both by attraction and retention, our property values would undoubtedly increase with the formation of an MSD, by an “educated estimate” of 10%. On the other hand, if we fail to establish our own MSD, there won’t be enough real-estate agents and moving vans to handle the exodus to other suburbs which did the right thing.
What will this cost? A trifling amount, compared to what we will get or what we stand to lose. Pretty much all the money we need to run the school system will be supplied by Shelby County, or by the state and federal governments through the County. State law requires us to demonstrate our commitment by setting aside and spending an amount equivalent to 15 cents of the property tax rate, which would only be $75 per year on a $200,000 home.
But, contrary to popular belief, we don’t even have to increase the property tax, if we pass Referendum No. 2, which increases the “local option” part of the sales tax by 0.50% within Bartlett, from 2.25% to 2.75%. This would raise the cost of a $100 cart of groceries by 50 cents. All the other suburbs will probably do this anyway. Memphis is also considering it, in an effort to balance their budget.
Note that the second referendum is vaguely worded, in that it doesn’t specify that the revenue is to be used for schools. This is by design. First, not all of this money needs to be given specifically to the schools; at the discretion of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, some can go into the general fund, or can be set aside for capital projects later. If the sales tax revenue were absolutely earmarked for the schools, this would create a “maintenance of effort” benchmark that could never be reduced later on, even if we didn’t need it all, or if the sales tax revenue were to fall.
In consideration of the facts presented above, it seems clear to me that as citizens of Bartlett we owe it to ourselves and future generations to vote for both of these referenda on August 2nd. Then, on November 6th, be sure to vote for School Board candidates with good sense and good will, because it will be up to them to see that our hopes and wishes come to fruition.
Next: An Interview with the new Principal of Bartlett High School