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Lawsuit may be bargaining chip for school buildings

Attorneys representing Shelby County commissioners are using a federal lawsuit as a negotiation tool with six suburbs that are trying to establish community school districts.
Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said Monday that the issue boils down to a conflict between the county and the municipalities over school buildings. The municipalities want to use the existing buildings in the newly created suburban school districts, but some commissioners have suggested the districts would have to pay for those buildings.
“I think the only reason we’re having these discussions about the buildings is the lawsuit,” said McDonald, referring to the equal protection suit that Shelby County commissioners filed against the suburbs in 2012.
Mike Wissman, mayor of Arlington, said Tuesday that his community is the first on the list for negotiations. He declined to say when those negotiations might begin, but said the talks are scheduled to start soon.
“We are going to sit down and see where there is common ground,” said Wissman.
McDonald said he believes the city can educate all the students in its existing attendance zone, which includes those from Bartlett and from parts of Memphis, and possibly pay something for the buildings in exchange for the county dropping the lawsuit.
In that suit, the county alleges that the suburbs of Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, Millington, Germantown and Collierville violated the U.S. Constitution when it carved out community schools. The argument is that the new districts will have a significantly smaller percentage of minority students than the unified Shelby County district has now while creating a primarily black school district out of the existing county school system. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays has not ruled on when he might hear those arguments.
Bartlett officials and those from the five other municipalities where citizens voted to form their own school districts on July 16 have said they believe the buildings should follow the students. But McDonald said that he believes getting the buildings won’t be so easy.
“Everything else has been a battle, so I’m going to expect that this will be,” he said.
County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who is running for mayor of Lakeland this fall, said he is aware of the tactics the county attorneys are using. But he also said the direction didn’t come from the county board.
“The county has a very weak position in their lawsuit,” he said. “The only thing they have is based on race and segregation. It’s not a good bargaining chip.”
Bunker said the county gave 40 schools to Memphis when the city had its own district, and the suburbs are already paying 4 cents more in county taxes to support bonds for building schools, such as the Arlington High School. He said the suburbs shouldn’t have to pay for the buildings for which they already are being charged.
However, he also believes that the current board of commissioners will argue that the suburbs should pay, and will argue against dismissing the suit.
“The majority of the county commissioners are doing it their way and their way only, and if they don’t get their way, they are going to court,” said Bunker.
Still, McDonald said he thinks that suit will become a negotiating tool for how much, if any, the district will pay for the existing buildings.
“The big question is, what’s it worth for us?” he said.
The answer depends on how much each side is willing to give. McDonald said that after the cost of educating students, the city will have about $2 million per year from existing county and state money that comes, in part, from the taxes it generates in Bartlett. That includes a half-cent sales tax increase approved last year. The money could be used for a building fund, either in maintaining existing buildings or possibly building new ones to replace aging structures, such as Bartlett High School.
He also said that equates to debt service of about a $20-million bond that the district might need to float to fund a building program.
“That sounds like a lot of money, but it won’t build a whole lot of school,” said McDonald.
The mayor also said he doesn’t know if that could lead to a tax increase to help offset those costs.
“It depends on the negotiations over the buildings,” he said.
If Bartlett negotiates a fee for the buildings in exchange for dropping the suit, he believes the city would be able to educate students with the 11 buildings it already has.
“If we’re creative and the school board is creative, I believe we have enough space to educate,” said McDonald.
The mayor’s comments came after a special called meeting Monday night to address issues related to electing the district’s new school board. Without discussion, the Board of Alderman unanimously passed two ordinances: one that revokes an ordinance the city enacted in May 2012 that called for a special election of board members during its first attempt to establish its own district, and another that essentially adds to another existing ordinance that will allow for a new election of school board members later this year. The city will hold public hearings on both ordinances Aug. 22, and a new election for school board members would be held on Nov. 7.
The city expects both to pass on third reading following the public hearings later this month. Germantown, Collierville, Millington and Arlington also passed similar ordinances Monday night. Lakeland approved its first reading of similar ordinances Aug. 1.

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