School consolidation study completed; city not expected to pursue issue

Jeff Steers, editor

A controversial issue to possibly eliminate Manchester City Schools and transfer students to Coffee County was big news more than three years ago. Proponents on both sides had strong opinions on the matter during a couple of open meetings held in the city. A report by the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service was completed in December of 2017. It gives the city ideas to consider should they decide to pursue the matter. Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman said he does not expect the city to look at the issue in the near future. Norman said he is “satisfied with the schools as they are right now” during an interview Feb. 15. “This is something the board wanted to discuss at the time,” Norman said. The study Mayor Norman said the study is the “last one” completed by the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service. The city also looked at police, fire, wages and a number of other issues. “It wasn’t just about the schools,” Norman said last week. The study – for the sake of looking at just one option – chose the option of elimination of the Manchester City School system with the resulting transfer of students to the county system. Such a move would require a majority vote of city residents in a referendum on the same. Over the past 50 years, 14 systems have closed or consolidated in Tennessee and transferred to a county or another school district. According to the report, whether a municipal district is abolished under the statutory procedures, their students automatically become the responsibility of the county school districts. There is currently no requirement for a school district to have a transition time for planning. Once a school system is abolished, there are financial requirement by the state for the transfer of schools. Simply dissolving a municipal school district does not relieve a municipality of the debt it has acquired while operating the school system. The report notes the city currently owes $1.9 million in debt. In its conclusion, it is noted it is ultimately up to the residents to determine how much they want to spend to own their own school system. There will likely be a transfer of taxes from the city to the county due to the fact that the county taxes will increase in costs if the student move to the county system. The hope, if the transfer occurs, is always that some of the duplicated roles will be reduced and therefore reduce the total cost in taxes. The report does not give a recommendation one way or the other for the city of Manchester. Coffee County Director of Schools LaDonna McFall said the district is “Switzerland” in this situation. “We are neutral … like Switzerland,” McFall said. “It is a city decision and we will respond accordingly.” Norman said the issue has not been discussed for a couple of years. A look back An article in the Manchester Times in December of 2014 noted members of the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen are “looking into the possibility of consolidating their city school system into the Coffee County Schools and planned to announce a public meeting in the near future with attorneys and experts on the subject.” According to the Manchester City Schools’ administrative office (in 2014), there were a total of 1,316 students in three schools – Westwood Elementary School, College Street Elementary School and Westwood Middle School. Tennessee state law requires that a municipal system serve a minimum of 1,500 students in order to establish its own school system. Manchester Alderman Tim Kilgore said at the time he believed there could be substantial cost savings in terms of reduced administrative costs and duplication of services. “So we are going to be talking to folks who specialize in consolidation (of schools) to find out what the benefits would be as well as the negatives,” Kilgore said. “If could save as much as $3 to $4 million per year, then it would certainly be worth considering.” Joint meeting A joint meeting of the Manchester Board of Education and Board of Mayor and Alderman held in late January ended without a clear agreement on the city’s next step regarding a possible transfer of schools – according to a report in the Manchester Times on Feb. 2, 1015. Alderman Cheryl Swan said, “The situation reaches farther than you realize.” She said the city could not continue to provide the services that it provides without some kind of complete overhaul. She called the financial situation a Manchester city issue – not just one with the school – and called for large changes in spending. She fell short of advocating a merger or transfer of students from Manchester City to Coffee County. During a two-hour meeting at Westwood Middle School, Coffee County Schools attorney Scott Bennett and Manchester city attorney Gerald Ewell exchanged a number of questions and answers about the possible transfer, merger or consolidation. Bennett was quick to point out that any move would likely be labeled as a transfer of schools and not a merger or consolidation. “To educate its (approximately) 1,200 students, Manchester City Schools spends about $2.7 million more than Coffee County by spending approximately $2,300 more per pupil, per year than the Coffee County,” Bennett explained citing state data. “It is important to know that the salary of Manchester teachers is higher (approximately $5,000).” He went on to say Coffee County could educate those student at least $2.76 million cheaper (per year). Bennett went on to say the county would assume control of the three school buildings. Approximately 300 people attended the meeting.