Breakaway districts

Tennessee opened a Pandora’s box by lifting the ban on new school districts. Now on to the details.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

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.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.