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Suburbs Vote On Municipal Schools Amid Disagreement Over Costs

The ballot question in Bartlett asks voters whether they want to form a separate school district and whether they are willing to pay for it. 

But money wasn't the first thing on candidate for Bartlett Alderman Jason Sykes mind when he arrived in the parking lot outside the Bethel Church early voting site and sunk a ‘Yes! Bartlett Schools’ sign into the ground. A heat advisory was in effect, but Sykes blithely opened a lawn chair and settled in for the long haul. 

Sykes said separate schools would be worth it at double the price, “For me it’s about local control,” he said.  

Early voting is underway in Shelby County. And residents in all six of the suburbs outside of Memphis are voting on referendums on municipal school districts. Separate schools would mean more government, but there is disagreement about how much more.

A consultant hired by all six suburbs said that opening these districts would about double city expenditures. The consulting firm says the biggest three suburbs Bartlett, Germantown, and Collierville could raise that money pretty easily with a half-cent increase on their sales tax. But the smaller three suburbs would have to increase their sales tax and their property tax.

Derek Venckus of Better Bartlett Schools, which advocates for separate Bartlett schools, thinks that is money worth spending in order to maintain local control over a school board—something the suburbs will lose when Memphis and Shelby County Schools merge in August of 2013.

“The unified district, which will have a majority of school board members coming from Memphis, won’t represent our interests as well as a local district with a locally elected board of education,” Venkus said.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz isn’t so sure municipal school districts are worth the money. He thinks it will cost far more than the consultants suggest. Ritz says the consultants low-balled their estimates on everything from food, to buses, to how much it will cost to educate each student each year. He thinks the biggest additional cost could be purchasing school buildings. The consultants predicted those buildings would be transferred for free. Ritz says they will cost millions—and someone will have to pay for that.

“In Germantown, the property increase taxes could be 100 percent—100 percent!” Ritz said. “Frankly, as a resident of Germantown I’m disgusted that the local officials out there aren’t telling citizens what it is probably going to cost. "

But even Ritz admits, "I don’t really think it [money] is going to change the vote a great deal.”

But the price-tag is more concerning for residents of the smaller suburbs. Gina Hopkins lives in Lakeland.

“I think if I lived in Collierville or Germantown, I’d probably vote for the municipal schools. I feel like they have enough people, they have the funding, they have more buildings there. I just do not feel like it is a good fit for Lakeland,” Hopkins said. 

Lakeland only has one public school. And the cash-strapped city levied its first ever property tax this year.

“I really feel like we ought to give the city and county merger a chance to work. And a few years down the way, if it’s not working, then, yeah, let’s look into doing something,” Hopkins said.

Ultimately, Hopkins may get her wish—no matter what happens at the polls. A federal judge could throw out the results of these referendums if he finds that the state law, which is allowing them to happen, is unconstitutional. Election Day is August 2. The judge's decision is expected by mid-September.

I love living in Memphis, but I'm not from the city. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent many hours at a highly tender age listening to NPR as my parents crisscrossed that city in their car, running errands. I don't amuse myself by musing about the purity of destiny, but I have seriously wondered how different my life would be if my parents preferred classic rock instead of Car Talk.