MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Voters in six Memphis suburbs decided Tuesday to start public school districts in the municipalities where they live.
Residents of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington overwhelmingly approved separate school systems in the second vote on the issue in less than a year. A federal judge invalidated the first vote.
More than 90 percent of voters in four of the six suburbs voted to approve new school systems, according to the Shelby County Election Commission. Eighty-seven percent of voters in Lakeland and 74 percent in Millington voted "yes."
The suburbs want to avoid the massive merger between the struggling Memphis City Schools system and the more successful Shelby County Schools system. Suburban leaders and many parents fear that education quality and academic achievement will suffer if they join the huge merged system — known as the Unified School District — and they want control of their own school systems.
The merger, which has created a school system of 150,000 students, is to begin operating when classes start in August. Experts say the merger represents one of the largest school consolidations in decades.
But the makeup of that system could only last a year — the six new suburban systems could start operating in 2014.
Critics say the suburban separation will hamper the massive consolidation efforts, which have included intense budget battles and layoffs of hundreds of teachers and office employees. Some board members in the unified district worry about losing quality teachers and administrators to the new districts. They also stand to lose valuable tax dollars to the breakaway systems.
But the six suburbs have been galvanized in their efforts, spending hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars in a campaign that has included community meetings, public rallies and a bitter legal fight in federal court. All six municipalities already have voted to raise taxes to pay for schools.
A judge in November ruled that the earlier suburban schools vote in August 2012 violated the Tennessee constitution because it dealt with only one county. Lawmakers in Nashville wrote and passed a new law that applied statewide and allowed Tuesday's vote.
Turnout was estimated at just 8 to 10 percent. That's not surprising in a vote with only one municipal question on the ballot, said Robert Meyers, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission. The turnout also could be affected by a feeling in the suburbs that the vote was a foregone conclusion.
On a hot Tuesday afternoon, voters trickled in and out of Bartlett United Methodist Church, one of about 40 polling places open in the six suburbs.
Stacy Gillis does not have a child in public school in Bartlett, having decided to home-school her son. But she voted to approve a Bartlett school system in any case, saying that a strong school system could help raise her property values in the long run.
"Smaller school districts benefit everyone in that school district," said Gillis, 41.
The municipalities will now ramp up planning, and elections will be held for school board positions. Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald has reinstated an advisory committee composed of former school superintendents, business people, educators and parents to help get the Bartlett system up and running.
However, the suburbs still could find themselves back in court.
In the federal lawsuit, the city of Memphis and the Shelby County Commission claim the suburbs want to avoid the merger on racial grounds. The Memphis City Schools system was majority-black, and the Shelby County system to which the suburbs have belonged was majority-white.
Lawyers for Memphis and the county commission claim the suburbs will create school systems segregated along racial and socio-economic lines.
The suburbs strongly deny that race was a factor in their decision to break away from the merger. U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays has yet to hear arguments on the issue.