A political battle is brewing between the Shelby County and Memphis school boards over budgetary control and taxing authority that could ultimately lead to significant tax increases to fund the two districts.
The debate began shortly after the Nov. 2 Congressional elections, when a new Republican majority in the state Assembly proposed permanently separating the two districts, and possibly insulating Shelby County School Board’s tax base from Memphis’. While some critics charged that such a move would essentially endorse de facto racial segregation, proponents said it would merely enable Shelby County to control its own school system after reports of questionable spending on the part of Memphis City Schools.
But Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter says both opponents and proponents should consider what it could mean if the Shelby County creates a special school district. Such a district would see “county residents and city residents both getting a substantial tax increase,” Carpenter told Action 5 News/WMC-TV. “What happens in that scenario is you lose funding for Memphis City Schools. There's a gap. And so somebody has to make that up, and that would fall under the County Commission.”
Currently, the Shelby County Commission sets the property tax rate. But the Tennessee Department of Education says school systems that gain special school district status automatically gain the right to levy a tax on county property owners.
The Shelby County School District argues that its proposal would revoke taxing authority privileges if it achieves special school district status, but opponents aren’t so sure. And a comprehensive University of Memphis study commissioned by the Memphis City and Shelby County school boards showed that creation of the special school district could lead to property tax increases for both city and county residents to maintain existing level of funding for city schools.
To prevent Shelby County’s move, the Memphis School Board this week voted to ask voters to support the surrender of its charter, which essentially would make Shelby County responsible for both county and Memphis city schools.
Speculation is now swirling about whether the Assembly will accelerate efforts to get that special school district status approved for Shelby Country before Memphians have a chance to vote on the issue.
Either way, expect property owners to pay.
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