Sunday, 29 December 2002

Shelby County Schools to steer clear of Memphis' tentacles

The lead in Sunday's Commercial Appeal reports that the Shelby County School Board is seriously considering building schools where they won't be annexed into the City of Memphis (and taken over by the city's independent school board). Wayne Risher writes:

Shelby County school officials, feeling burned by Memphis's recent annexation of newly opened Cordova schools, said they'll actively avoid building new schools in the city's far-reaching annexation reserve areas.

County schools Supt. Bobby G. Webb said he won't recommend new schools in the reserve areas without agreements spelling out how the schools would be funded and controlled once annexation occurs.

Rather than put new schools closest to populations to be served, the county would scout locations that stand the best chance of remaining under the county board's jurisdiction: those within suburban municipalities or within their annexation reserve areas.

Such a policy ultimately could influence the metro area's growth patterns, since new county schools have been a key factor in where residential development occurs.

The final paragraph quoted is perhaps the most interesting. Memphis' growth problems have largely been driven by what I'd call “annexation leapfrogging”; every time Memphis proposes annexing an area, growth there immediately stops and development leapfrogs further away. The prime reason: the city's higher tax rate, which makes new developments less affordable for the new homeowners that they usually target. While Memphis officials and developers attempt to work around this misfeature, apparently by hoodwinking new homeowners into thinking they aren't going to be annexed until they've signed the dotted line, that's hardly a sensible plan. The intent of Public Chapter 1101 was to better tie provision of services to annexation, but that promise has yet to be met in the Memphis area. Ironically, it has worked best in the suburban municipalities, where residents of existing subdivisions generally support annexation (primarily because there is no shift in school responsibility) and annexations have largely kept up with urban development; neither is the case with Memphis.

Ultimately the only solution likely to work for Memphis is to tie annexation directly and irrevocably to development within its urban growth boundary; i.e. to require all subdivisions to be annexed by the city before urban services can be provided. Not only would it reduce the leapfrog effect, it would also place development at the eastern fringe on a more equal footing to "infill" development in the long-annexed but mostly empty Southwest Memphis and Frayser-Raleigh areas.