Poor Decisions and Vendettas Led to Charter Surrender

This is my first piece of real opinion that I have written on this blog. Most things I have written about I have experienced personally. But in this instance there is a fair amount of context and eye witness experience that I have been able to understand during my stint on the board.

Tennessee has a long and storied history that has been both peaceful and belligerent as it pertains to incorporation and municipal growth. Throughout the 1700, 1800, and into the mid-1900’s, the only way to incorporate new municipal governments was through private act, ratified by the general assembly. However, after World War II, there was a move to restrict this ability by requiring incorporation via general state law saying a general law shall provide the exclusive methods by the which municipalities may be created, merged, consolidated and dissolved and by which municipal boundaries may be altered. In 1996, a controversy erupted when the tiny town of Hickory Withe pushed for incorporation in order to stay out of Oakland’s urban growth zone in Fayette County. The Lieutenant Governor at the time was Harry Wilder who was from nearby Braden TN. At the behest of his constituents, Wilder created Public Chapter 666(ironic) referred to as Tiny Towns Act that was so narrowly written that it only applied to two towns and Hickory Withe was one of them. The City of Oakland Sued. The next year, the TN Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. In 1998, a reform effort led by Jimmy Naifeh and Wilder let to Public Chapter 1101 that required long-term strategic growth planning and specific requirements for annexation.

Why did I give you all of this background? At the same time there was the same clamoring in Shelby County as the city of Memphis continued to grow and swallow up areas in annex areas. Since the democrats held the general assembly for so long, there was strong influence from the Shelby County delegation and annexation proceeded unfettered. However, the rapid growth of Memphis and desire to harvest ripe property tax revenues led to the rapid devaluation of property in a large part of the unincorporated areas. Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill were victims. This led to subpar revenues but required services did not go down creating budget deficits in th city of Memphis.

Many of us moved from these areas into other municipalities and unincorporated Shelby County to make sure that we were not part of another ill-advised annexation by the city of Memphis. In 1990, the city of Memphis began talk of surrendering its charter because the financial struggles from overextending itself and its population rendered it difficult to pay its school bill. This created a huge wave in the county and plans were drawn for the remaining Shelby County areas to secede into a new county known as Neshoba County. Obviously, this was a very popular measure in suburban Shelby county. However, it met stiff resistance to the city of Memphis for fear of losing county revenue sources from the property value rich suburbs. As a result of this, city mayor Willie Herenton annexed a small sliver of Shelby County south of Highway 64 to the Fayette County line that cut the contiguous Shelby County population in half a thwarted the creation of a new county. New counties may be established by the general assembly that consist of not less than two hundred seventy-five square miles (275 sq. mi.), and that shall contain a population of not less than seven hundred (700) qualified voters.

As the property tax revenue fell and city school expenses have risen due to the higher cost educating poor and underprivileged children, Memphis continued to annex into Cordova but the cost of services and falling property values and the higher cost of educating children in the city of Memphis has taken its toll. Now, with practically no financially viable annex reserves left to boost falling government coffers, and the city of Memphis footing a maintenance of effort figure to the tune of 68 million a year, the last proverbial stand of Memphis leadership was to cut a deal to relieve itself from its school obligation and the poor performance of the MCS coupled with the desire of suburban Shelby County to create a Special School District to protect itself from the City of Memphis created the perfect excuse.

Understanding that Memphis and its continual land grab over the years had created a strategic population advantage, there was no doubt that Memphis would have majority representation on this board and no longer have to foot 68 million leaving that to the Shelby County tax payers. 

And that brings us back to where we are today.  We are the benefactors of decades of ill-advised annexation land grabs by the City of Memphis which is now so large and inefficient that it has created a cash deficit that probably cannot be cured. And that brings all parties in Shelby County to this dilemma. Do you create a situation in that creates a de facto Memphis annexation situation with school in the suburbs. If you do, it will have the same net effect as Memphis annexing the suburbs. You will see rapid movement and devaluation of property until Shelby County is bankrupt if history is a good indicator of future behavior.

We must fashion a solution that stops this cycle..

Torpedoes and Avalanches

It has been a crazy week in the world of education in Shelby County. Lets bullet point the developments:

1) Shelby County School Board had two meetings. Tuesday night was specifically the normal scs working meeting. Towards the end of Tuesday nights meeting, an agreement was presented to the board that had been drafted and passed by the county commission and modified by our board attorneys. The agreement was a contract with the bond holders of Shelby county that basically gave them the right to sue us if we gave property away for free if they could prove that the transaction would create a need to build new buildings and more school debt. The goal was to trump any state law that would give property to municipal school districts utilizing contract law. This  agreement was the brain child of Steve Mulroy and supported by Jeff Warren. The unfortunate part about this ill-fated agreement was that it unnecessarily opened up Shelby County to huge frivolous lawsuits. Understanding that this agreement was not needed, this majority of the board voted to reject it. It needed  12 votes, it got 9.

2) In tandem a bill has been working through the tn legislature that would remove the prohibition on municipal school districts state-wide. Senate sponsor is Norris and house sponsor is McCormick. The bill would be effective January 1st, 2013.  The bill made its way out of senate education but got sidetracked in the house education subcommittee where the bill sponsor allowed the bill to get rolled to next week. In this session, Jimmy Naifeh made his infamous remarks about municipal school districts being about segregation.

3. The TN AG offered an opinion that municipalities could not create municipal  school districts until consolidation is complete. The next day the election commission decided to not put the referendums on the ballot.

So what really is going on? There are a multitude of positions and posturing right now that will confuse even the most savvy political expert.

1) Lifting the prohibition on municipal school districts – This legislation has gained support in many counties across the state as cities are looking to create smaller school districts. This will be in-house sub education committee this week. This this legislative session winding down, there are just a few more short weeks for this to get done this session. If not, it will not come back up until 2013. This bill has already passed Senate education committee. All this bill does is lift the prohibition on muni-districts. It does nothing else. This bill would take the bite out of any argument about muni districts being ripe to litigate based upon Norris-Todd.

2) We have to retain the decision-making process on these buildings without boundaries provided by the state or the county. The path to everyone getting most of what everyone wants is by local agreement. If we can stand down on the rhetoric and “road bombs” like Jeff Warren tried to create, we should be able to get it done.

3) The immediate future of muni school referendums are unclear as each city determines what they feel is best. There could be legal challenges to the ruling by the election commission. Worst case scenario is that Norris-Todd rules the day and muni school districts start 2014. What does this all mean to you and I?

Keep on keeping on. Your children are getting a great education. This will play out in due time. .

Education Subscribers

Last week, the TPC approved and administrative model know was the “Multiple Paths” model. It is a hybrid of the original solution posed by Boston Consulting Group that consists of a centralized structure + multiple school paths/districts. I originally  opposed both  structures based upon the grounds that I did not think that path to autonomy was legal. However, this new structure is one that I can buy into and could really form the structure for what i would refer to as “education subscribers”.

An education subscriber would be any school(charter), school district(municipal or ASD) that would subscribe to SCS centralized services to help provide infrastructure to educate their children. The SCS would provide a compliment of school district resources ( transportation, technology, facilities, custodial, books) that subscribers could opt into. There would be a cost associated with opting in as a subscriber and it would change depending on the level of services each school needs but it could provide the appropriate resources needed for start-up and ongoing cost of school districts.

Example: Let’s say Bartlett creates its own school district. Once they elect their board and hire their superintendent, they could in essence contract almost all essential school(minus personnel) services from the county. That would include turnkey operations for starting their own schools including but not limited to facilities, books, technology, all back-end services, transportation, etc. This would all come as a cost to school operators(albeit a cost that is equal to or less). However, it would help guarantee school starts on time and legal issues are minimized including the ever contentious school buildings. Agreements would be based on contract for a fixed period of time and opt-in costs could fluctuate based upon agreed upon performance provisions.

So the district could really be a centralized, subscriber based back-end that utilizes economies of scale and size to drive costs down. Subscribers would pay for those services. The educational operation would be multiple educational providers, many with their own school boards.

This model could be a win-win for all of us as we are able to drive down administrative costs across the county yet preserve operational funding. In essence creating on school district with multiple state, municipal, and lea based operators. A centralized unified school district of sorts giving the choice and autonomy that so many are looking for.

“You can’t win”

It has been amazing to me in my brief political experience on the school board of how politics works. I have never been one to mince words about a subject i feel passionate about but also understanding that sometimes I need to turn on my filter. Not everything can be accomplished through brute force, or willing it to be done, or by running others over. It takes a level of willingness to work together to get things done for those whom you represent. I have made no bones about representing the will of those whom elected me to the school board. I believe at the very core of representative government whether you are democrat or republican that you reflect the will of your constituents, unless it is immoral, unethical, or the public lacks the information to understand what the impact is.

 I won the election to the school board in 2010. I entered the race surprising many people in the political realm as the establishment had chosen their person to run. I remember day one that I received calls asking me to drop out of  the race and I had no business being there. I remember hearing that “you can’t win”! You might as well give it up. With a campaign budget of $5000 and a handful of faithful friends including my granddad, we worked Bartlett, the polls, and we won. We had no endorsements. No real political friends. Just a group of people who believed in me.

Fastforward 2 years: We have been through one of the most turbulent times in Memphis history. We have seen a revitalized Bartlett High School. We are well on our way to a new school system. And I have around 15 months left in this term. 3 months ago, I threw my hat into the alderman ring because it was important to me that we have a strong leader who can and will work with our new school district and can help determine appropriate funding priorities. I also think that it is in the best interest of our city to have a representative whose heart is to serve his people.

Over the past two weeks, I have heard on multiple occasions from multiple politicians that “you can’t win”, you are running against an incumbent. Or the unspoken rule that you don’t run against a person who is in your own political party until the seat is vacant. And you don’t run against your friends. 

I have heard this before. I know who my friends are. And I am reminded of Rocky II when Rocky has decided to fight Apollo Creed once again for the world championship. Everyone is down on him and even his own wife questions his ability to win. Like Rocky, the odds have never been with me. Broken Home. Alcoholic Dad. Mom had to work. Put myself through college debt free. I know what it means to overcome.

As Adrian comes out of her coma in Rocky II, Rocky has been struggling to train because of her sickness. And one morning she wakes up and draws him close and says in a quiet voice, “There is one thing I want for you to do, WIN!” The bell rings and Rocky is off and running.

My bell was rung last night for the last time… It is time fight..