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Germantown offers much more to buy three Shelby County schools — this time in person

Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo (center) answers questions from reporters about a $25 million offer to buy three schools from Shelby County Schools.
Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo (center) answers questions from reporters about a $25 million offer to buy three schools from Shelby County Schools.
Caroline Bauman

In the latest volley in a three-year turf war, a Memphis suburb would spend at least $25 million to buy three schools from a district it chose to leave.

That’s the latest offer on the table from Germantown Municipal School District, according to a letter to Shelby County Schools, dated May 2. It follows a $5 million bid to buy two of the schools last year that barely elicited a response from Shelby County Schools officials.

This time, Shelby County Schools is paying attention: Leaders from both districts sat down together for the first time Tuesday afternoon to discuss the potential sale of Germantown elementary, middle and high schools, which are within Germantown city limits, but under Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County Schools officials said its school board is expected to discuss the offer at an upcoming public meeting but did not offer feedback on the meeting from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson or board chairman Chris Caldwell. However, the in-person meeting symbolizes an openness not seen before from district leaders in transferring the schools.

Germantown was one of six municipal school districts to split from Shelby County Schools in 2014, one year after a historic merger between the mostly white suburban district and the mostly black city school district. In the transition, Shelby County Schools held on to the schools, colloquially known as “the three G’s” or “heritage schools.”

Both districts have good reason to want the schools — and Shelby County Schools may have a couple of reasons to want to part with them.

All of them are part of Shelby County Schools’ optional schools program, where students must test into the high-performing schools to attend. Optional schools in the district are a major attraction for middle-class families for the urban district that has seen declining enrollment as families move into the suburbs.

Though the district is downsizing as enrollment drops and maintenance costs rise, the three Germantown schools are all near or over capacity. Still, the district needs to shed about 20,000 empty seats over the next several years and the high school has $9.6 million in building projects, according to 2016 estimates. The Germantown offer represents a rare opportunity to gain revenue as the district sheds buildings.

For Germantown, it’s a matter of capacity — and pride. Its elementary schools are bursting at the seams and Superintendent Jason Manuel said the district anticipates the same for its middle schools. Ever since Germantown voters chose to split off from the merged district, residents, leaders and politicians of the generally wealthy suburb have said they would fight to get back “our schools.” School board members in Germantown even campaigned on the promise to get “the three G’s” from the merged school system.

Germantown leaders voted last month to build a new elementary school after Hopson showed little interest in selling the elementary and middle schools for $5 million in June. However, if Shelby County Schools changes course to sell one or more of the schools, Germantown leaders would abandon plans for new construction.

The municipal district is asking for a response from Shelby County Schools by May 22, but Manuel said that timeframe was negotiable. The next Shelby County Schools board meeting is May 30, and it is unlikely the county district would be able to give Germantown an answer before then.

Under the proposal, the transfer would begin in September and the elementary, middle and high school would open under Germantown Municipal School District in 2019, 2021 and 2023 respectively. The offer is also the first to include purchasing the high school.

“We used bolded words that say we’re open to a counter offer,” Manuel said about the offer letter. “The amount of money, the transition plan, all of those things are negotiable. We wanted to just get to the table with them.”

To read the Germantown letter in full, see below:

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