Memphis voters approve surrender of city schools charter and consolidation with Shelby County Schools

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal and the New York Times report that Memphis voters have approved the following referendum measure:  “Shall the Administration of the Memphis City School System, a Special School District, be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?”  Sixty-seven percent of voters pushed the “yes” button.  The referendum is the first time that voters have weighed in on the fate of the Memphis city schools, a contentious issue that has fueled months of debate and political brinkmanship and pitted the city against its suburbs and many state lawmakers.  Just how, when, and to whom administration of the school system will transfer remains in uncertain legal territory, subject to numerous lawsuits.

The New York Times article explains that historically, the Memphis and suburban Shelby County school systems operated semiautonomously but were paid for collectively. Taxes were drawn from everyone in the county and divided between the two systems based on attendance. City schools were additionally financed by revenues from a city-only tax.  Residents of the more affluent suburbs sought to form a so-called special district, which would permanently freeze the boundaries of the suburban-controlled school district, preventing any merger or urban encroachment.  City residents were concerned about the financial implications of Memphis, a poor city, being forced to pay for its schools without countywide support.  So in December 2010, the city school board took the drastic step of voting to dissolve itself and leave its schools in the county’s hands. The City Council later voted to dissolve the city school board. The voter referendum was seen by many as the final step.

Suburban residents were outraged, seeing the maneuver as a hostile takeover by a much larger, poorer and more complicated school district. Last month, Republican state lawmakers passed a law mandating a two-and-a-half-year transition period for the merger. As far as the state is concerned, that law is now governing the transition. But the county commission has its own plan, and there are other debates over exactly who sits on a transition committee.

Regarding the seventeen percent voter turn-out for the referendum, David Pickler, who has been the chairman of the the Shelby County Board of Education for 11 years, said, “It is absolutely a shame that an issue of this magnitude had fewer than 20 percent of the voters turn out.”

Source:  Memphis Commercial-Appeal, 3/8/11, By Zack McMillin and Jane Roberts

Source:  New York Times, 3/8/11, By Campbell Robertson

[Editor’s note:  For background on the dispute over administration of Memphis schools, follow the first link below. In August 2010, the Memphis Daily News reported that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s denial of the City of Memphis’ appeal in a long-running school funding case had left the city council with the responsibility to pick up the tab for funding the city’s public schools. The council reportedly had two options to pay the bill: an installment plan or a special tax bill. The school system’s general counsel said the city owed the district $57.4 million for the 2008-2009 school year.  A summary of the article is available at the second link below.]

NSBA Legal Clips archive on Shelby County Schools suit to prevent consolidation

NSBA Legal Clips archive on City of Memphis funding dispute with Memphis City Schools

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