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Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

One county, seven districts: Vying for students as Shelby County Schools de-merges

One recent Thursday, as Millington leaders hosted a community meeting for their brand-new school district, one of the district’s school board members took the floor at an event a few miles down the road, hosted by the district Millington is separating from: Shelby County Schools.

Armed with a stack of flyers, Cody Childress turned to address the families gathered to hear how the fracturing of Shelby County Schools will force them to move schools this fall: “We want you in Millington!” Childress said.

Some parents didn’t even wait for the Shelby County’s question and answer session to end before they came to ask Childress for flyers.

With less than six months to go before the new school year starts, six new suburban districts and the Shelby County school system, which will include Memphis and the unincorporated parts of the county, are campaigning to convince families to choose their district.

The districts have held open houses, hosted community meetings at churches and town centers, distributed flyers, and built social media presences to prepare for their first year of school.

The new suburban districts in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington are being carved out of a merged school system that encompasses legacy Shelby County Schools, which was mostly suburban, and Memphis City Schools, largely urban. Suburban leaders fought hard to create the new districts, raising local taxes and petitioning for a change to state law in order, they said, to gain local control over their schools. But only those within the city limits of each municipality are zoned to the new districts, leaving a large number of families who previously attended schools in the suburban district to be rezoned to the merged, mostly-urban Shelby County system.

More than 20,000 students are anticipated to attend the new municipal districts next year: The 140,000-student Shelby County district is budgeting for just 117,000 students in 2014-15.

A lot rides on which students choose to attend which district. Government funding and staffing plans are based on the number of students a district serves. For instance, next year’s projected enrollment drop means Shelby County Schools’ budget is decreasing from $1.2 billion for 2013-14 to $961.3 million in 2014-15. Several recently released reports from Southern Educational Strategies predict that several of the municipalities will likely enroll hundreds fewer students than they’d originally planned, leaving a possible budget deficit.

Districts’ reputations are also at stake. Some suburban leaders have described their schools as superior to those run by legacy Memphis City Schools.

And all parties are awaiting the outcome of a long-standing civil rights lawsuit alleging that the new districts will cause resegregation in Shelby County: Though the new districts and Shelby County voted to settle the suit, federal judge Samuel H. Mays, Jr. has not yet dismissed the charges.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said that Shelby County Schools is focusing on creating high-quality options to retain or recruit new students. For instance, Germantown High School is becoming an optional program for high-performing students. The district has also created a new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) optional school.

Shelby County has hosted a series of informational meetings about rezoning proposals for the affected students and is gathering feedback from parents to determine its final plans.

Hopson said the district would have a more targeted “marketing” campaign after it was finished with its budget. “We have the advantage that the kids are already with us,” Hopson said. While it is promoting programs for high-flyers to suburban parents, the Shelby County district is also facing competition for its lowest-performing schools from the state-run Achievement School District, which will take over several of its schools next year, and the growing charter school sector.

Though the municipal districts are bounded by city lines, they are making efforts to recruit students from outside their boundaries. Families must provide their own transportation if they are not zoned to the municipal district. Several districts considered, then rejected, charging a small tuition to students outside of their schools’ zones.

David Roper, the superintendent of the new Millington school system, said the district is sending out student intent forms to students who are currently part of Millington and for those who attend other schools but might like to attend a Millington school next year.

“We’re not trying to go out and do a sales job, per se,” he said. “We’re trying to say, here’s who we are, here’s what we have to offer – we would welcome you to come and be a part of our school system.”

He said that Millington currently enrolls 2,600 students and hopes to have a similar number next year, though some of those 2,600 are zoned to Shelby County.

“As long as they’re a student in good standing and we have space available, we’ll approve a transfer for them to come and be part of Millington schools,” Roper said.

Lisa Parker, the chair of the Germantown board, said the district was encouraging its schools to “think out of the box” in an attempt to attract families. “If you want to do engineering, you can do that; if you want to do world languages, you can do that,” she said. “We want to work with the administration and give them the autonomy to do what they think is best.”

“The (suburban) schools have always competed for the best teachers and students,” said Russell Dyer, coordinator of human resources for Colliverville Schools. “We’re next door to Germantown; they have high-performing schools and we have high performing schools. We want to make our district as attractive as possible.”

Most of the municipal districts are confident in their ability to recruit students.

“I haven’t heard anybody who says they do not want to be part of the Arlington community school system,” said Danny Young, a board member for the new Arlington system. “We’re having people who want to get in. That’s going to be our issue.”

He said the board’s enrollment policy gives priority to students in Arlington but allows all others in Shelby County to attend for free. Only out-of-state students would have to pay tuition.

Still, making sure classrooms are full – or full-enough – hangs over the districts’ unfinished plans. The municipalities have not yet put together budgets or benefit packages for teachers. “All buildings are going to have a target number to meet,” Young said. “The [state] BEP money doesn’t cover 100% of funding. You hate to put money on children, but it takes money to educate students.”

Millington superintendent Roper said he is trying to counteract the rumors that have spread among parents due to the large number of changes. “Some people got the message that if they lived outside of the city limits of Millington, they would not be able to attend our schools and would have no choice. That’s not true.”

At the Shelby County rezoning meetings, many parents were interested in keeping their children in the schools they currently attend even as they become municipal schools.

Shelby County parent Tolona Moore has studied the test scores of Houston High School, where she wants to send her children next year. But she’s not sure if the new Germantown municipal district will have space for them.

“Whether my children will be able to attend Houston High School is a serious concern,” Moore said. “If they are allowed to enroll one year and not the next, they would end up changing schools again. I can’t afford private school, but I am willing to pay $200 and drive them to school. There’s a lot to consider.”

“It’s not fair,” said Debbie Bounds, a mother of seven children concerned about her children having to change schools and face a longer bus ride to a Shelby County School. She attended a meeting last Thursday at Cordova High School.

Shelby County board members Teresa Jones and Billy Orgel also attended Thursday’s meeting and listened to parents’ concerns.

“We’re trying to make the best of a situation, and it’s not that good,” Orgel said. “Our hands are tied. There’s nothing we can do about the split. We’re sensitive about what’s going on. I feel bad for the teachers and the administration.”

Jones added that Shelby County Schools was “trying to be as respectful as it could.”

“We’re trying to make informed decisions about the rezoning proposals. There’s going to be disruption.”