Bartlett’s board of aldermen meet Tuesday evening and among the items on the agenda is hiring a schools consolidation consultant to advise the city on its options as the county’s two public school systems begin the consolidation process.
Among the options the consulting firm would cover is Bartlett forming its own municipal school system or forming a school system with some or all of the other five suburban towns and cities in Shelby County.
The cities and towns of Arlington, Germantown and Collierville have already voted to hire consultants for the same reasons. Arlington leaders are expecting to get their report from the consultants in mid January.
Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, who has talked of a separate coalition school system, is also among those serving on the schools consolidation planning commission which has its first formal meeting Thursday afternoon.
Under terms of the Norris-Todd state law governing the consolidation process, the municipalities can’t make their move on a separate school system until Sept. 2013 which is the effective date of the schools merger. And then the first political hurdle is to win approval from the Tennessee legislature.
But there is nothing that prevents the municipalities from making plans now.
As the planning commission members got together with the new countywide school board earlier this month at the University of Memphis, McDonald questioned how much applicable advice the two bodies can get about consolidation from other school systems that have undergone mergers.
Look for McDonald to have lots of questions as the planning commission wades into the technical details of how a single countywide school system functions.
And he is expected to apply the same attention to detail to the concept of a Bartlett school system or coalition school system.
The key question for the suburban communities is how much it would cost them to get school buildings from the soon to be merged school system. If they have to pay market value, so to speak, it would mean a sea change in not just their debt service but the philosophy of the suburban leaders about municipal debt. That philosophy is basically pay as you go unless you absolutely can’t.
Those philosophical differences were a key part of the discussion about overall city-county government consolidation just last year. Several of the suburban mayors, McDonald included, pointed to the city of Memphis’s and even Shelby County government’s debt as an indication of a much different philosophy of government accountability than they have. They were countered by some on the metro charter commission who argued a larger population in the city and the county outside the city as a whole make comparisons useless. Running an urban government, they said, makes it impossible to do construction projects one at a time on a pay as you go basis.
What comes next for the suburban towns is likely to drive home the point that even if some of the towns band together to form their own school system, the schools merger is taking local government in general in a new direction from which there is no going back.