By MATT BLOIS
On Tuesday night, the Brentwood City Commission voted not to fund a study on the feasibility of creating its own school district.
Some Brentwood residents asked the city to investigate creating its own school district as the county continues to grow. Proponents say that most of the growth in Williamson County will happen outside of Brentwood, but Brentwood residents will still have to pay for the growth.
Six cities in Shelby County have already formed their own school districts. The mayors of two of those cities say that creating a municipal school districts has improved education and led to more economic development.
However, the cities of Bartlett and Germantown have also significantly increased property tax and sales tax rates since forming the districts.
Memphis and Shelby County used to have separate school districts. Then Memphis voted in 2010 to dissolve its district and merge with the county. That prompted six suburbs to form their own districts, which started in the 2014 to 2015 school year.
After forming a new district, Bartlett, Tennessee increased its property tax rate by $0.35, to a total rate of $1.83. A large portion of that increase went to funding schools. Residents also voted to increase the sales tax by half a percent, with most of that money going towards school related projects.
Despite the steep tax increase, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said that almost nobody complained.
“When you raise taxes that much and you hold public hearings and nobody speaks you know the community understands the value,” he said. “The community sees the value. They’re excited about what it means for us.”
Following the creation of the new districts, Germantown increased the property tax rate by $0.21 last year. That increase helped the town pay for construction projects in the new school district. It now has a rate of $1.97 and Brentwood has a property tax rate of $0.36.
The town also increased the sales tax, but that money isn’t dedicated for schools.
Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo said that the school district now has a larger budget and more employees than the rest of the city government combined. Still, he said it was a good idea.
“This is an investment and you’re going to have to spend some money to get a great district,” he said. “We’ve learned that. We’re not batting an eye at it. We’re prepared to do that.”
In the 2012 to 2013 school year, before it broke away, Bartlett High School had an average ACT score of 19.5 and a graduation rate of 73 percent. East High School in Memphis had an average ACT score of 15.9 and a graduation rate of about 68 percent. That’s close to the average fo the Memphis city school district that year.
McDonald said the city used the extra money to improve school buildings and bring more technology into classrooms.
In 2016 to 2017, Bartlett High School had an average ACT score of 21.5 and a graduation rate of 93 percent. East High had an average ACT score of 16.6 and an 80 percent graduation rate that year.
The secession of the suburban school districts took a toll on the schools that remained in the Shelby County. According to the education news site Chalkbeat, the school district has cut employees and cut its budget since the breakup.
In Shelby County, suburban schools with low levels of poverty broke away from urban schools with higher levels of poverty, but that wouldn’t be the case in Williamson County.
According to the Tennessee Department of Education, about 3.7 percent of the students in Williamson County were economically disadvantaged in the 2016 to 2017 school year. Well over half of the students in Shelby County schools were economically disadvantaged last year.
In addition to relatively low levels of poverty, both Brentwood and Williamson County schools already have high test scores. According to a website advocating for the school feasibility study, in the 2016 to 2017 school year Brentwood high schools had an average ACT score of 26.1, while the rest of Williamson County had an average score of 23.2.
Even though there aren’t large disparities between schools in Brentwood and schools in the rest of Williamson County, Mayor McDonald said splitting off can still be valuable to make the governance of school districts more local.
“The bigger the school system the less opportunity you have to have contact with your school board members,” he said. “You catch me at the grocery store or the movies. It’s not like they live in a different part of the county and you never see them.”
With nearly a million people, Shelby County, it might be less common to run into school board members at the grocery store. Williamson County has about a quarter of a million people.
Brentwood’s City Commission did not make the same decision that the suburban cities around Memphis did. They decided not to investigate the cost of setting up a new school district because the study couldn’t tell the city what would happen to the physical buildings.