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From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

Caroline Bauman

Municipal superintendents cite challenges, benefits of split from Shelby County Schools

With their first school year complete, the superintendents of six municipal districts identified funding as their biggest challenge in stabilizing and developing the suburban ring around Memphis that opted in 2013 to break off from newly merged Shelby County Schools.

The superintendents reported on their districts’ status on Thursday during a summer study session on K-12 education by state lawmakers in the House of Representatives.

Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper was especially vocal about the challenges ahead for his district, which has struggled to repair its buildings and deal with a high teacher turnover rate. At Millington’s four schools, three had new principals during its first year of operation, and there was a 50 percent teacher turnover rate at its middle and high schools.

“It will take time until we get our staff on stable footing,” said Roper, who described his north Shelby County community as blue-collar with many low-income families.

Millington City Council just approved about $1 million in budget cuts, or 5 percent of the district’s budget, for the upcoming school year. “That’s going to affect our ability to build up the fund balance that we all need as newly created school districts,” Roper said. “You start off with a fund balance of zero. We all started out with a central office staff of one, and that was each one of us, and we had to build from there.”

After breaking off from the state’s largest school district, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching a new school system. The new districts are in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington, each previously part of the legacy Shelby County district.

The cities began to spin off and create their own districts after Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter, beginning a merger with legacy Shelby County Schools. (See Chalkbeat’s in-depth coverage of the merger, the municipalities split and the breakdown of the municipalities by the numbers).

After fighting legal battles with Shelby County and the city of Memphis, which brought lawsuits alleging that the creation of the new municipal districts was racially motivated, the municipalities opened their doors last August.

“There were those skeptical of six municipal school districts starting at one time,” said Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett). “These (superintendents) are responsible for making a difficult task not as difficult. But to say that there aren’t still rough hills to climb would not be proper.”

Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science at Rhodes College and author of “Opportunity Lost,” a book about the former Memphis City Schools, said the municipalities had optimistic projections of what it was going to cost to run their own school systems.

“One by one, they are realizing they need capital money,” Pohlmann told Chalkbeat in Memphis ahead of Thursday’s meeting. “If they want to be top-level school systems, and attract top-level teachers, it’s going to end up costing more local money.”

Lakeland officials have sparred with its residents over how to fund new school buildings. The city’s original plan, which would have built a $50 million combination middle and high school, was defeated in a referendum last April following opposition by a group called the Concerned Citizens of Lakeland.

City commissioners later approved construction of a middle school for grades 5-8 and a 55-cent property tax hike to cover the estimated $20 million cost.

The Lakeland School System is the smallest municipal district, with only one elementary school and 810 students enrolled. It sends its 1,200 older students to middle and high schools in Arlington and Bartlett, said Lakeland Schools director Ted Horrell.

“Those relationships and partnerships were critical to Lakeland being able to have its own school system,” Horrell said. “We’re the school system that everyone looked at and said, if anyone can’t do it, it’s them with one school. But we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the partnership of my colleagues here and the support from our legislators.”

David Stephens, director of Bartlett City School District, cited greater local control and community support as a positive outcome of the split. The goal, he said, is to see all students, including those in Shelby County Schools, improve.

“We want to create a lot of competition,” Stephens said. “A rising tide is going to raise all boats. We all have open enrollment, so there’s that competition of trying to draw students in.”

All municipalities reported that students had enrolled from outside of their districts, some even from outside of Shelby County.

Tammy Mason, director of Arlington Community Schools, said her schools have the highest number of non-resident students out of all the municipal districts. Out of 600 students not within Arlington’s boundaries, 100 come from Fayette County and pay a tuition of about $1,200 to 1,300 a year to attend, she said. Only students from outside of Shelby County have to pay.

“One of the big win-wins in creating municipal districts is giving parents more choice,” Mason said, adding that former private school students are also moving to the municipal public schools.

Several superintendents said they are pleased with their district’s test academic results for this year, which will be released later this month. But Mason cautioned that next school year’s change in Tennessee’s assessment will pose challenges.

“If we really want to move forward, we have to have stability over time in what our assessments look like,” Mason said. “Our students are probably doing way better than they were three years ago, but with the constantly changing standards and assessments, no one really knows.”

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) commended the superintendents for their work. “Whenever the city of Memphis gave up their charter a few years back, it destabilized a lot of happy parents,” said White, as he pointed to a map that etches out the new municipal districts in Shelby County. “Now, you see an eastern border with happy families in good school systems. That’s what’s going to stabilize Shelby County.”

Pohlmann said school funding and facilities will remain challenges for the new districts,  but that “eventually they will have to address the big elephant in the room, and that’s race.”

“There are sizable African-American populations in those schools, and I don’t know if there’s a single African-American on any of the six school boards,” Pohlmann said. “That’s not going to cut it. They aren’t cookie cutter; their kids have different needs and backgrounds, and their schools are becoming more diverse each year.”

While school demographics were not discussed during Thursday’s legislative update, Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) asked the superintendents to provide the review committee with demographic information.