Superintendents from two Memphis area municipal school districts on Monday night came to Signal Mountain to share their experiences, both good and bad, regarding the formation of districts separate from the Shelby County schools. Jason Manuel, superintendent of Germantown Municipal Schools, along with Superintendent Tammy Mason, and general counsel Valerie Speakman from Arlington Community Schools answered questions submitted to Chairman of the Signal Mountain School System Viability Committee Dr.
John Friedl from residents of the town.
Two hours of questions yielded mostly positives about the process and results of the creation of the new districts. The stimulus for the new school districts in Memphis, however, was very different than that of Signal Mountain. Officials said what started the ball rolling there was that the Memphis City Schools had voted to give up their charter and that system was joining Shelby County Schools forming a “mega- system.” After one year, six municipalities within that large district decided to break away from the larger system. There was no opposition and unanimous support. As a result, those municipalities are now experiencing growth and the real estate market is booming because the schools are so desirable, it was stated.
Another impact on the communities was a tax increase. All municipalities in Tennessee have to provide 15 cents for every $100 of assessed value from property taxes to education. Instead of raising property taxes, these towns voted for a 25 cent sales tax increase with a portion of that going to the schools. And, after reappraisals were done in 2017, Mr. Manuel said, Germantown chose to leave the tax rate unchanged, which will result in an increase in the property taxes collected.
"The projected budget was really close to what we predicted," said the superintendent of Germantown Schools. But the money does not come in all at one time, so it is important to have a reserve, he said. "It will be a challenge, you have to plan ahead," he stated. During the first year, the city of Arlington had to help the schools with a $400,000 loan to get started. It was paid off within the year.
The process took just a little over a year from the referendum in July 2013 until the doors opened in August 2014. The school system was created in six months, which was ambitious, according to Mr. Manuel. In the four years since then the results have been successful in almost every way, according to both superintendents. Reserves have been built up, additions and improvements have been made to some buildings and facilities, maintenance has been stepped up and Germantown is building a new elementary school. Technology is moving forward with the schools providing hand-held devices to each student. "We are in control of how the money is spent, and it is according to our needs," said Ms. Mason.
Attorney Speakman said that there are state statutes about ownership of the buildings. She said the county does not have to give them up, but some case law, she said, states that buildings should follow the children. In Memphis, Shelby County Schools wanted to reduce benefits to retirees and the new schools wanted the buildings. The six new districts agreed to accept taking on retiree benefits based on the number of employees and students, as part of the negotiations for the buildings. They were deeded for $1.00 to each municipality.
Teachers are the most important asset, said Mr. Manuel, and during the transition, they and the rest of the staff were told that they would all be rolled over into the new school districts. All teachers except one were offered the same jobs in the new Arlington district. One downside is that in a small school system there may not be the opportunity for a teacher to move into an administrative capacity. Growth for teachers is still part of the school’s responsibility, said Ms. Mason, but she said they may be training someone for a job somewhere else. Mr. Manuel said instead of moving upward in one large district, employees are now moving among the different districts. Some post retirement benefits have also been cut for teachers.
As for special education for students with disabilities, federal funding is available, said Mr. Manuel. It is a challenge, said Ms. Mason, because a smaller district cannot support some specialists and must contract out for services that are needed or in some cases employees might be hired on a part-time basis. Each child has an education plan with funds that are available based on their needs. Arlington looks at the items that are non-negotiable first when creating a plan. No matter the size of the district, said Ms. Mason, the funding is the same; the difference is how you use it.
The central offices in both municipalities started out small and in three years both have increased in number of employees. "You have to find the right people who can do multiple things," said Ms. Mason. The new municipal school districts also shared services with the other six for the first few years to save money. And fundraising is still needed.
Both school systems represented at the forum have had improved student outcomes compared to where they started. There are a record number of scholarships coming to students in Germantown, with 96 percent going on to colleges and ACT scores increasing. The schools have flexibility and are able to create programs for their own needs, it was stated. An example given was “ACT Boot Camps,” leading up to the tests. The other four districts that were not represented at the forum have also seen the same increases, said Ms. Mason.
The racial mix of students stayed the same at the new districts in Memphis. And, no matter how well the students are doing, there will always be some who will send their children to private schools, it was stated. Some may go for athletics, some for religious reasons and some because their parents went there, the officials said.
"Our demographics are different than Signal Mountain," said Ms. Mason, and added, “I’m not here to encourage you to do it.”
“I’m excited because of what we’ve experienced,” said Mr. Manuel.