When a 2013 state law allowed six Shelby County towns to break away from the newly merged Memphis district and create their own school systems, some lawmakers warned it would open up a Pandora’s box across Tennessee.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire

Now a handful of towns are exploring the option too, and one lawmaker is trying to address one of the stickiest related issues.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire says school buildings should follow the students. He introduced a bill in January aimed at determining the fair market value of property caught in the crosshairs of a transfer of students from an existing district to a new one.

But the Chattanooga Republican amended his bill last week, asking lawmakers instead to send the contentious issue to a state policy research group for further study. The Senate Education Committee green-lighted his request, and Rep. Harry Brooks, who is co-sponsoring the bill, will take the study proposal before a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

Gardenhire acknowledges that the scope of his proposed study is limited to school property. It does nothing to examine the impact of a district secession to the school system that’s left behind — or if schools could become more segregated when new districts are created.

“I’m only asking about an equitable way to transfer property. That’s the main thing I hear folks asking about,” said Gardenhire, whose Hamilton County district includes East Ridge, where there’s been talk of leaving the urban school system in Chattanooga.

The 2013 law that lifted Tennessee’s ban on new districts requires only that a town seeking the new school system have at least 1,500 students, the tax base to support it, and a majority of residents approving the change in a referendum.

However, the law doesn’t spell out how to transfer school property. It also doesn’t require a study of the potential impact on the district left behind — for instance, who’s responsible for the liability for retiree benefits or whether the transfer of students would make public schools more segregated.

In Shelby County, the 2014 departure of six mostly white and more affluent suburban towns saddled the Memphis district, which serves students who are generally poorer and mostly black, with a $1 billion-plus liability in retiree benefits. The exodus also solidified segregation along mostly the same lines that existed before city and county schools merged in 2013.

A 2017 report by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on education funding and inequality, called Shelby County one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class.

After the pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve built their school systems from the ground up.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

Shelby County municipal leaders note that most of their new districts have shown improvements on state test scores for high schools, while Shelby County Schools continues to struggle.

Gardenhire’s bill would task the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations with studying the school property issue, which in Memphis was negotiated by administrators and lawyers for the towns and Shelby County Schools in response to a lawsuit over the details of the transfer.

“I’m extremely focused on that one point, and I’m staying away from those other issues,” Gardenhire told Chalkbeat on Monday.

A related resolution, which passed the full Senate on Monday, may open the door to some of the rest.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, who sponsored the companion resolution, wants the same policy group “to study the overall effects on public education relative to having multiple school districts operating in the same county.”

Explaining his resolution to fellow senators last week, the Gallatin Republican said he’s mostly concerned about “what the financial implications are to the current school district, for the new school district, for the taxpayers.”  

Haile said his request stems from “a lot of conversations” statewide about the possibility of forming new school districts. (The breakaways being discussed, according to Gardenhire, include the towns of Signal Mountain and East Ridge from Hamilton County, Brentwood from Williamson County, and Farragut from Knox County.)

“It dawned on me real quick I didn’t have enough information to make a logical data-driven decision on this,” Haile said of the need for further study. “I felt like it was just critical we not make this an emotional and political decision.”