Memphis residents voted Tuesday to transfer the administration of the city’s schools to the county, supporting earlier moves by city officials and effectively putting an end to the city school system.
The referendum is the first time that voters have weighed in on the fate of the schools,
a racially and politically charged issue that has fueled months of
debate and political brinkmanship and pitted the city against its
suburbs and many state lawmakers.
Voters decided roughly two-to-one that the 103,000 students in the
city’s schools should join the 47,000 suburban students in one
countywide system. State law limited the vote to city residents.
Still, the issue remains in uncertain legal territory, subject to
numerous lawsuits. In the short term, it is even unclear just who will
be in charge of city schools.
“We are on a path to a merged school system,” said Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who specializes in education law. “How we get there, we don’t know.”
For years, 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.
But residents of the more affluent suburbs have harbored a goal of
forming 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 deeply concerned about the financial implications of
such a move. If Memphis, a poor city, were forced to pay for its
schools without countywide support, taxes in the city would skyrocket
and schools could face financial difficulties.
Advocates of a suburban district say they would have continued to pay
taxes toward all schools even with a special district, but that
assurance has been received by city residents with skepticism.
Such special districts, which proliferated in the years after school
desegregation, were declared illegal in 1982. But Republican domination
in the state elections in November, fueled in part by Republican
strongholds in the suburban areas, made it much more likely that special
districts would be allowed again.
So in December, 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. Tuesday’s
referendum was seen by many as the final step.
But suburban residents were outraged, seeing the maneuver as a hostile
takeover by a much larger, poorer and more complicated school district.
Never in the state’s history, they pointed out, has a larger district —
in this case, more than twice as large — dissolved into a smaller one.
Last month, Republican state lawmakers passed a law mandating a
two-and-a-half-year transition period for the merger. The law would also
lift the prohibition on special districts in Shelby County at the end
of that period. Smaller towns in the suburbs have already begun planning
to create autonomous school districts of their own.
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. And
lawsuits are coming almost by the week, putting the whole process into
what Professor Kiel calls “a legal black hole.”
NY Times version available here.