Bartlett sprints toward city school district and lawsuit settlement

By Carolyn Bahm

Bartlett has passed four milestones toward launching a new city school district and settling the pending municipal schools lawsuit.

The negotiated settlement gained these approvals:

• Shelby County School Board on Nov. 26

• Bartlett Board of Aldermen on Nov. 27

• Shelby County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 2

• Bartlett City Board of Education on Dec. 2

Bartlett  school board members also accepted the transfer of deed and bond letter for the new school district, approved 17 basic board policies, and unanimously elected Jeff Norris as chairman and Bryan Woodruff as vice chairman.

Bartlett school board member David Cook talked about all the parties that contributed to the progress and then said, “Thank you all for all your work in letting this moment come to pass.”

The lawsuit arose in 2012 when Shelby County sued the state’s education commissioner and six suburbs that voted to form their own school districts (Bartlett, Arlington, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington). The suit alleged the new districts would have far fewer minority students than the unified Shelby County district has now, while turning the county system into a primarily minority district.

The negotiated settlement brings hope for establishing the new school districts. All except Germantown have already gotten County Commission approval for their settlements.

“We’re just excited to get it started,” Norris said regarding Bartlett’s progress. “This is the furthest we have made it. But as I reminded somebody earlier, this isn’t over until Judge Mays dismisses that lawsuit.”

U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays stayed the lawsuit earlier this year, but then state law changed and another referendum once again approved new districts in each suburb.

• Bartlett Settlement Details

The potential lawsuit settlement specifies that Bartlett will pay $608,192 annually for 12 years, operating its own city school district and owning the schools’ properties, buildings, and all their furniture, fixtures, and equipment. Payment is due each Nov. 1.

A key compromise was directing the payments toward Shelby County Schools’ Other Post-Employment Benefits Trust (OPEB), Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald said. The trust covers life and health insurance for Shelby County Schools’ employees. He said the county feared that many teachers might seek early retirement with the creation of new suburban school districts, straining the abilities of the OPEB Trust.

The settlement has a 25-year reversion clause, allowing the schools to revert to Shelby County School if Bartlett stops operating the schools or misses payments.

• Funding for Bartlett District

Bartlett has a funding plan in place for its schools. A half-cent city sales tax, already in effect for the past year, should raise just over $3.5 million annually and fund both the OPEB payment and an additional state requirement to invest in new schools, McDonald said.

Tennessee requires cities to pay an amount equal to 15 cents on the property tax rate, he said. For Bartlett, that amounts to about $1.7 million.

Any extra sales tax revenue will be reserved for future unknown needs and to provide a buffer for economy fluctuations that hurt sales tax revenue. The current balance will also pay for attorney and consultant fees and other costs related to the lawsuit, expected to total about $1 million by year’s end, McDonald said.

A tentative school budget for next year is scheduled for discussion at the board’s Dec. 5 special-called meeting.

• What’s Next

A next step to ending the lawsuit is putting a motion before Judge Mays to accept the settlements and dismiss the case. McDonald is hopeful for the outcome. “I have no reason to believe it won’t happen.”

For the new school board, he said a critical next step is finding the right superintendent candidates quickly. McDonald believes the district needs a leader who can inspire community trust, balance funding with residents’ priorities, and make necessary decisions for the school district.

“It’s quite a dance that has to be done between the school board, the funding authority, and the citizens.”

Approval of a tentative school district budget is another major step still to come. Board member Erin Elliott Berry said, “Everything is going to be done at a fast pace. We need to get this budget going because we are going to have to have money to operate, and we are going to have to look to the city for that.”

The board aims to resolve all issues needed to start classes for the 2014-2015 school year. Board member David Cook said, “It’s a heavy task ahead of us in trying to get this all set up for the fall, but we’ll get it done.”

Board member Shirley Jackson agreed. “We are excited. We are dedicated to making this happen and making it happen well.”

McDonald said the new school board is prepared for the challenges after serving on an advisory committee for the past year.

“It’s going to be a short honeymoon, but everybody’s excited and looking forward to having their own school system.”