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Shelby County board approves building transfers, settlement with two suburban districts

Shelby County’s school board voted unanimously Tuesday to transfer five school buildings to two of the six suburban cities that plan to break away from the merged school system.  The deal will cost the two districts, Lakeland and Arlington, $4.7 million.

The vote marks the beginning of the end of a single county-wide school system that some educators and politicians once envisioned would serve as an academically successful and financially-lean district for Memphis-area children and taxpayers. The merger of the two systems was one of the largest in the nation’s history.

“This is bittersweet,” said Kevin Woods, the president of the board. “As board members, we were elected to a unified school board.” 

Tuesday’s deal, privately negotiated over the last month between several government lawyers, will serve as part of a settlement for Memphis city council members and Shelby County commissioners who sued the municipalities alleging the split was de facto segregation.

“These documents are very deliberative, they’re very thoughtful, they’re very fair, and they’re reached in the spirit of compromise,” said Dorsey Hopson II, the superintendent of the merged system.

Board members said they hoped the agreement would be a template for settlements and deed transfers with the other four suburban districts that are looking to create their own school systems. Leaders from those towns will enter into negotiations with Shelby County leaders over the course of the next few weeks.

Arlington will pay $333,333 per year for 12 years, or $4 million altogether, beginning next November. Lakeland will pay $56,337 per year, or approximately $676,000 altogether, over the same period of time.

The deeds transfer the buildings from Shelby County Schools to Arlington and Lakeland for $10 per city. The buildings to be transferred are Arlington High School, Arlington Middle School, Arlington Elementary School, and Donelson Elementary School from Arlington, and Lakeland Elementary School in Lakeland.

Lakeland, which has just one school building, is planning to share a school system with nearby Arlington.

Board members took care to clarify that the agreement means that the suburbs are not paying for the buildings, but for the settlement. The money is to cover health care costs for retirees from the system.

The amount does not totally cover those legacy healthcare costs, but board member Teresa Jones said that it reflected an amount that would not cripple the municipalities as they began running.

Board member David Pickler said that tonight’s unanimous votes “represent a compromise” between members of the board, some of whom hoped to transfer the buildings and settle at no cost to the municipalities, and some of whom hoped that the settlement would cover more of the merged Shelby County Schools’ costs. Pickler, who represents Germantown, described the settlement amount as a “token.”

The agreement specifies that the transfer of the deeds will only happen once the towns have school districts up and running. If, for instance, the districts are not running schools by 2014, the transfer will not go through until schools are operating.

Planning for the new municipal districts has been ongoing since the legacy 100,000-student Memphis City school system surrendered its charter in 2011, forcing a merger with the legacy 40,000-student Shelby County school system.  That merger became official on July 1.

Both the merger and the plans for the breakaway districts have been contentious. The creation of new municipal school districts was initially deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge, but a new state law that passed last spring allowed the suburbs to go forward with their plans to create new districts.

The settlement is intended to mark an end to those battles. It aims to stem a lawsuit against the suburban towns from the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council that alleges that the new districts would re-segregate the county’s schools. Suburban leaders have vehemently denied that that is their motivation, saying they are interested in efficiency and preserving local control. The County Commission voted earlier this week to postpone a hearing about withdrawing the lawsuit until December, by which point Shelby County is set to have negotiated with the other municipalities.

In a comment period before the vote, some members of the public raised concerns that the plans had not been publicly vetted before they were approved.  They also alleged that the merged district was being ripped off by the municipalities.

The deal must be approved by the Shelby County Commission and local governments.

Superintendent Hopson said reaching this agreement would allow the board and the municipalities to begin focusing on students’ education rather than on the logistics of the merger and municipalities. “We have spent a lot of time talking about issues that aren’t student achievement,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to work together for benefit of these kids.