For the second year in a row we dodged a big bullet fired by our suburban friends in Shelby county.

In the words of a famous Republican… “Well, there you go again”.

The bullet is none other than the Special School District authorization for the Shelby County School System, which had been introduced last year in Tennessee’s General Assembly by Rep. Curry Todd. The same legislation has been introduced for years by one republican or another from the Shelby County suburbs.

This year, like last year, the bill to allow creation of Special School Districts in the State failed in committee although this year the sub-committee passed the bill out to full committee, unlike last year. The bill failed even though a last minute amendment would have authorized only Shelby County to create such districts.

Special School Districts were allowed to be created in Tennessee until abolished in 1982 by the General Assembly due to their unwieldy, fragmenting system of decision-making. Some suggest that special districts were only allowed in the first place as a reaction to desegregation of public schools and not as good government reform?

These special districts (there are 14 in Tennessee created before 1982) fragment local government decision-making by having separate taxing power to fund operating and capital budgets of the school system; and on top of this, the tax rate must be approved by the General Assembly when proposed by the Special School District. If such were created in Shelby County outside of Memphis, there is a question if the Shelby County government’s existing debt for County school construction would shift over to the new Special School District or remain for all taxpayers including Memphians? Also the question of continued ‘average daily attendance” funding from Shelby County has not been resolved?

The current system is already problematic because school boards, even though funded by the county, make independent decisions about the opening and closing of schools, often in conflict with local government policies on land use, transportation, and other public facilities. The $2 Billion debt of Shelby County government is largely due to construction of schools outside of Memphis to suit developer needs, not the needs of taxpayers. This is a result of developers selling land to Shelby County School Board next to their residential subdivisions.

In partial defense of the county school board, the Shelby County Commission, in concert with the Memphis City Council, zoned the land that created the sprawl and the opportunities for land sales for schools. This is because Memphis and Shelby County governments have not followed their own 1981 land development policies for containing sprawl; and more up-to-date land use plans have not been prepared in three decades.

While the separate taxing power is a big problem, the most harmful problem for Memphis is that school district boundaries would be frozen forever. Thus, as Memphis expands under the annexation plan approved by the State, the Memphis school system would not expand; and as population further declines in older areas of Memphis (reinforced by the closing of neighborhood schools) , the amount of funding for Memphis Schools would shrink. A greater burden would be placed on Memphis taxpayers for maintenance of older schools because with declining enrollment, State funding and County funding would decline. There is also the question of Memphis taxes from future annexed areas going to Memphis schools while at the same time paying the Special School District taxes and Shelby County government taxes?

All in all, the Special School District legislation is just another special interest boondoggle that does nothing to advance education in Memphis and Shelby County and further complicates the situation. Maybe after consolidation of Memphis and Shelby county governments this fall, the school issue can be resolved to the satisfaction of urban and suburban interests?

A radical vision would have the Shelby County School boundaries set at the annexation reserve boundaries of the six (6) smaller municipalities, which would be retained under consolidation. The population growth that gravitates to Shelby County Schools would then be concentrated around these municipalities and thus reduce some of the costly sprawl in Shelby County. The Memphis annexation reserve area would then be zoned for Agriculture or estate sized lots , which would not add significant public service costs to the new consolidated government and might never be annexed!

However, no matter what scenario evolves for school or general government organization, ways must be found to attract population to Memphis or the whole metropolitan region is doomed to economic stagnation.