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Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Judge’s ruling confirms new school district lines, but the real changes are just beginning

On Monday, federal judge Samuel H. Mays, Jr. dismissed a lawsuit alleging that carving new school districts in the Memphis suburbs out of the merged Shelby County system would resegregate the county’s schools. The decision brings to a close a long legal battle over the creation of municipal districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington.

But though the suit is settled, the reshuffling of families, staff, and funds among the new districts has just begun. The changes that ensue could have a long-term effect on residential patterns, economic development, and school enrollment, budget and quality in southwest Tennessee.

The proposed 2014-15 boundary lines of the new municipal districts and Shelby County Schools don’t match up with the legacy Shelby County and Memphis City lines; many students in unincorporated areas of the county who previously attended the suburban school district will now attend the district that includes Memphis. Only students who live in the suburban towns are guaranteed spots in the six new districts.

Research shows that school district boundary lines influence the distribution of housing prices and wealth in a metropolitan area. Families who are able to often relocate in order to attend high-rated school districts.

“When you have district boundary lines that set districts and municipalities into competition with each other, the urban districts tend to lose,” said Jennifer Jellison Holme, a professor of education policy at the University of Texas in Austin. “It’s hard to recruit middle class families to districts with high poverty.”

In Shelby County, though districts’ enrollment plans are in flux, parents affected by changing boundary lines are frustrated about having already moved in order to send their child to a certain school only to see their school and district assignment changed.

But the suburban advantage is not entirely clear-cut: The new municipal districts must establish their reputations for having good schools while starting from scratch, and potentially with less funds than they initially anticipated.

Some of the new municipal districts will still have significant populations of students who live in poverty. Legacy Shelby County Schools students was more than 38 percent economically disadvantaged, while legacy Memphis City Schools was more than 84 percent economically disadvantaged in 2012-13. As far as the racial demographics go, legacy Memphis City was more than 93 percent minority while legacy Shelby County was 49 percent minority.

Just who will attend the new districts and how that will change the landscape of education in Shelby County, which is also feeling the impact of a new state-run district and a growing charter school sector, remains to be seen.

“We have to let the dust settle,”said Kevin Woods, the chairman of the Shelby County School Board. “We have seven new districts in Shelby County, including the (state-run) ASD, so we are trying to create an environment where you have least amount of disruption possible and then see where kids are actually going to school.”

Research based on other states, including New Jersey, New York, and Florida, indicates that fragmented school districts can drive residential segregation by race and class as middle-class families in an area tend to relocate to more desirable school districts.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if housing prices skyrocketed in some of those more well-off suburbs,” said University of Texas professor Holme.

While each state’s districting practices and laws vary, Holme said that urban areas that are broken into many small districts are often particularly segregated by race and class. In the St. Louis, Mo., metropolitan area, for instance, there are dozens of districts that vary wildly in terms of academic performance and demographics, and many of the poorer districts have been classified as failing by the state.

Still, she said, having a larger system also does not guarantee equity.

Economic development also comes into play. In Baton Rouge, a group in the southeastern part of the city is hoping to carve out a new school system in order to attract employers and workers who, they say, want to send their children to public school, not private school, but are wary of the large urban system.

The Shelby County municipal districts’ policies for enrollment could influence how much the new boundaries drive shifts in housing or economic development. If students from outside the municipalities find it easy to attend those districts, there may be less incentive for them to move.

The new districts have all decided to have some sort of open enrollment policy, which means some students from unincorporated Shelby County or Memphis could attend their schools for free, space permitting. But those parents must provide transportation to go to school – and students who are not zoned to the new municipal districts have no guarantee that they will get a spot.

The discourse around open enrollment in Shelby County has occasionally been racially fraught.

“If you read letters to the editor and listen to some of the conversations, some of the resistance in Germantown, Bartlett and other places to inviting in county school students has had a racial undertone,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science and author of “Opportunity Lost,” a book about Memphis City Schools. “Now we’re starting to get some smoking-gun evidence of racial motivation, but the lawsuit is done.”

Despite some municipal residents’ wariness about drawing in students from outside of their areas, “I think municipalities, if they are wise, and I think they are, would stay with their policies and continue to say, we’re not going to put barriers up,” said Shelby County board member David Reaves.

There is a financial incentive for municipalities to keep the gates open: While the municipalities passed half-cent sales taxes to fund the districts, recent reports from education consultant Southern Educational Strategies demonstrates that the districts may not enroll as many students as they initially anticipated and may thus struggle to fund their districts. The struggle for funds could also lead some municipalities to raise property taxes – though such a change would likely be politically unpopular.

Meanwhile, planning for next year is in full swing. Local board members said the court’s decision, while momentous, was no surprise. Shelby County chair Woods said, “we felt confident that Judge Mays would probably dismiss the lawsuit. But [the decision] lifts any uncertainty about the finality of what’s occurred – that we’re transitioning away from a merged system of 140,000.”

“I think everyone got what they wanted,” said board member Reaves. “The [former Memphis City] district wanted one funding system for the county, and they got it; the municipalities wanted their own districts, and they got it.”

But families, especially those in unincorporated Shelby County, are starting to feel the effects of the rapid changes, and many are distressed.

At a meeting at Kate Bond Middle School, district planner Denise Sharpe showed maps that outlined redistricting that skirt the municipal districts and the state-run district. The rezoning plan places some students in “satellite zones,” meaning they must travel long distances to their new school.

Many parents expressed concern about students traveling long distances and about the academic quality at many of the schools in Memphis.

Parent Kevin Marlowe asked the district if now wouldn’t be an opportune time to reconsider zoning patterns for the entire district to avoid such arrangements. “It looks like we’re fragmenting district even further,” Marlowe said.

Woods said that while some students will have long commutes, the district had sought to minimize the number of families disrupted. Meanwhile, for those forced to switch schools next year, he said, “we’re talking to the municipal districts, saying, ‘Do right by those families.’”

Several board members from the municipal districts have suggested coming to agreements in which they would educate those students zoned to Shelby County Schools who already attend municipal schools, but no agreements have been reached.

Woods also said parents’ dissatisfaction with Memphis schools meant the board needed to focus on improving those schools.

Where these parents choose to enroll their children, and how districts coordinate or compete for them, will eventually determine the new shape of public schools in Shelby County – and the communities that surround those schools.

“Everything is in flux, and it doesn’t all have to do with the suburbs leaving,” said Pohlmann. “It’s hard to predict what Shelby County Schools will look like in five, ten years.”