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MSCS: Suit possible over law requiring school transfers without 'equal or better' option

The Commercial Appeal
The Commercial Appeal
 2022-12-01
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Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent Toni Williams appeared to tell board members Wednesday that a lawsuit is coming if the district does not have an "equal or better" option for campus communities at four schools in Germantown and Millington set for transfers.

"Let me be extremely clear: We believe that this law is unconstitutional," Williams said, referencing a new state law requiring the district to transfer the school buildings. "As such, our position remains the same in that any avoidance of legal action only results if our students and staff are placed in an equal or better position than where they currently are and are given ample transition time."

The district has, through its lobbyist, publicly discussed believed unconstitutionality of the legislation since it was brought back to Tennessee lawmakers in the spring. The law passed but not down party lines, and some lawmakers who voted in support expressed reluctance of the terms, which require the district to transfer schools to nearby municipalities where they are built.

The new law requires MSCS to cede one of its schools to Millington and three to Germantown, dredging up decisions made nearly a decade ago when the newly merged city-county school district divvied up its schools to the newly formed municipal districts.

State legislation pushing MSCS' Germantown Elementary, Middle and High Schools to the new municipality swirled before successfully in the spring, also impacting MSCS' Lucy Elementary in Millington.

Rather than follow the law's terms of building transfer and sale, the district can reach an agreement with each of the municipalities over the schools. But the clock is ticking. The deadline looms large for this pathway, which has to be created and voted upon by the end of the year.

Williams said Wednesday she remains hopeful conversations "will result in a solution in the best interest of our students and our employees."

The district declined to respond Wednesday when The Commercial Appeal asked if leaders expected agreements by Jan. 1. Both Germantown and Millington officials hope for an agreement.

MSCS sets sights on raising $125 million for new high school

Speaking to Shelby County Commission on Wednesday before the board meeting, the district set its sights on drumming up funding for a new school to replace Germantown High. Williams on Wednesday night told board members she remained hopeful for this funding.

The proposal could pull county funding away from an existing long-term plan to consolidate and build schools the district presented roughly two years ago. MSCS has not received the requested capital funding to complete the plan and is behind its proposed schedule for building the first school, a new high school in Frayser.

The district has placed the price tag of a new high school in the East Memphis-Cordova area in the range of $110 to $125 million. A private sale would provide some of the funding, and a combination of public funds would need to fill the gap, MSCS leader Patrice Thomas said in a presentation to Shelby County commissioners Wednesday.

Nearby Cordova High School is at capacity, though some neighboring high schools to the south and southwest have capacity for additional students, data shows. It is not clear where students live in proximity to nearby schools or other optional schools.

Thomas did not specify funding amounts sought from each body. In recent years, the district has received about $20 million in capital funds from the county.

The district presented the option of a new school and a lawsuit to Germantown Elementary, Middle and High School families in September.

Nearly half of the students at the high school attend for optional programming, including International Baccalaureate or "IB" programming, which is only available at one other MSCS high school.

Germantown Mayor, Millington superintendent seek agreements by January

Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo, who pushed for the legislation to bring the schools back to Germantown, said shortly after the law was passed he would prefer an agreement to the transfer prescriptions in the law.

"I'm optimistic a solution and compromise will come forward prior to the end of the calendar year," Palazzolo told The Commercial Appeal in a text message Wednesday afternoon.

"There have been numerous discussion held in good faith with all the involved parties," he said, demurring on the question of current negotiations.

At the end of September, as MSCS concluded community meetings with Germantown families, the mayor shared an offer of about $5.4 million for the three campuses in an email to constituents. The offer, he said, was made in June 2022 and would have allowed for a 15-year transition.

MSCS has since confirmed the offer, calling it "far below the land's market value." In announcing the offer, Palazzolo shared figures from an appraisal and said the offer was based on the land value, which is the value the law would use to determine a sale price should the municipality and MSCS not reach a separate agreement.

In MSCS' view, Thomas said Wednesday, Millington plans to use Lucy as a school, while that's "not necessarily the case" for Germantown. The district has pointed to a demographic study presented to the Germantown Municipal School District, which was not part of conversations ahead of proposed legislation, showing a stagnant school population. Millington, on the other hand, is boasting its expected growth thanks in part to Blue Oval City.

"We're getting ready for the influx," Millington Municipal Schools Superintendent Bo Griffin told The Commercial Appeal Wednesday afternoon.

The district has shuttered one of its school buildings since forming, and could use Lucy Elementary's 850-seat capacity for preschool to fifth graders. Griffin is looking to have the building ready for the 2024-25 school year.

"We hope to" have an agreement with MSCS by January, Griffin said.

Details of an offer are unclear.

Commercial Appeal reporter Katherine Burgess contributed.

Laura Testino covers education and children's issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at laura.testino@commercialappeal.com or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino

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