The suburbs have made it clear, they want their own school districts after the consolidation of Shelby County and Memphis City Schools in 2013 – the same year state law lifts the ban on municipal and special school districts. But what would the cost be to taxpayers?
When looking at the cost of a municipal school district, there are almost as many ifs, ands, and buts as there are school buildings in the suburbs. And, the possible added cost of buildings will make it expensive for suburban municipalities to start school districts. But the suburban mayors are moving forward and nearly all have met with consultants who would guide the forming of a new district.
Both Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald and Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner said constituents are demanding separate school districts.
"I can't wait around, I've got a grandson in the first grade at Oak Elementary School," said McDonald. "I'm not willing to sacrifice three or four years of his basic education hoping this new system is going to do a good job."
Joyner agreed, saying, "Protect our schools, do whatever you have to do to protect out schools, and we're willing to pay more."
Immediately, state law requires 15 cents be added to the current tax rate. For a $200,000 home, that would be an additional $75 a year for Bartlett and Germantown. On that same model Collierville homeowners would see an additional $175 a year, because its number crunchers think it will actually cost 35 more cents just to operate their own district. That would be the only increase if the municipalities got to keep the schools within their boundaries at no cost.
Joyner pointed out "that's the deal Memphis gets. Every time Memphis annexes into the county, they get the school and all the furnishings."
But, it appears the suburbs will not be getting free buildings. Shelby County School Board President David Pickler said the buildings can only be handed over for free if there aren't enough students to go there.
"Any school board can only transfer property that's been declared a surplus," he said. "Last time I checked, the school buildings were filled with happy, healthy school children."
So it looks likely that there will be some cost involved in attaining school buildings. The municipalities have worked out how much it will cost to buy the school buildings at "book value," meaning what the school buildings are worth on the accounting roll.
This would up Collierville's tax rate by 24 cents in a best case scenario. Those residents would see a total increase of $295 a year on a $200,000 house.
Bartlett estimates an increase of 53 cents. Residents would pay $340 more than they do now.
Germantown officials declined to participate in this story, but said in a February town hall meeting it would cost at least 40 cents to start a school district. At the very least, that means another $185.
But it will likely be a new unified school district deciding if these schools are sold at "book value."
Current Memphis City School Board President Martavius Jones points out that tax dollars collected from Memphians helped pay for all these suburban schools.
"That would be cheating Memphians in my opinion," he said. "I would be a proponent of selling it at market value or replacement value. Book value takes into account what the depreciation has been, it does not take into account the replacement or market value is."
So if the new municipal school districts must give the unified school district what it paid to construct these schools, or build new ones, the price jumps dramatically. Looking at recent school construction in Shelby County, it costs more than $20 million to build or replace a school.
Assuming each school is valued or replaced for $20 million, Bartlett taxes would increase by $665 a year for a total of $1,410 on a $200,000 house.
Collierville taxes would increase by $660 a year for a total of $1,375 a year on a $200,000 house.
Since Germantown did not provide estimates, we were unable to formulate a total increase, although it would likely be similar to Colliervile because of the number of residents and number of schools needed.
So how much is too much to pay for a municipal school district? "More often than not, I've heard, whatever it takes," replied Mayor McDonald.