Special School Districts

Tennessee has a number of “special school districts,” which differ from any other school district only in that the tax rate for education operations is set by the Legislature, by private act, according to the school board’s request. The result is that the county commission (or other local government) doesn’t have control of school funding; the other side of the coin is that school board members may incur greater blame for raising taxes (albeit indirectly).

For some years now, no new special school districts have been allowed to form. Legislation was introduced last year (HB1982/SB2062) that would allow existing school districts to convert to a special school district.

In counties that have been starved for funding by their county commissions — given only the amount required by law, which is not less than the year before — this bill would give relief and enable the school boards to make necessary budget improvements.

I wouldn’t advocate that Oak Ridge do so, but we have a much better working relationship with our City Council than most. Still, it could help many struggling school systems.

Although it passed the full Senate on May 11 of last year, it was amended as follows:

… any LEA in a county containing more than one (1) LEA with a total average daily membership (ADM) combined population that exceeds one hundred thousand (100,000), may convert to a special school district.

The only county in Tennessee with more than 100,000 students (average daily membership) is Shelby County. And they just happen to have two LEA’s (local education authorities, or school systems). Memphis City is already a special school district, so this bill was amended to apply only to Shelby County Schools. Who, incidentally, are not among the chronically underfunded.

The House version has not yet been amended, and is scheduled for subcommittee hearing tomorrow. I hope that they decline to amend it, and that the amendment can be dropped in conference committee.

I’ve long despised our Legislature’s practice of crafting generalized legislation then amending it to fit only a few; it’s always done is such a way that one has to look up population data to figure out who gets the benefit or the shaft. This case exemplifies the reason for my distrust.

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