How much does it cost to operate a school district?
County Commissioner Mike Ritz made headlines recently with his estimates of school district cost. Ritz concluded that the consultants who studied the municipal school district question missed the mark by a wide margin; off by 25%. The consultant’s projected a first year budget of $61 million. Ritz predicts over $76 million in spending and sees huge implications for the municipal property tax rate.
Ritz arrives at his $15 million premium in three steps. He points out that the consultant’s did not provide capital for the purchase of buildings. The legal opinion included in the study cited legal precedent and past practice to conclude that the buildings will follow the students. Ritz assumed that the municipalities would be required to pay 50% of replacement cost for the buildings, resulting in a $4 million debt service cost. He did not cite a source for his estimate of purchase price – he just made it up.
Ritz also concluded that Germantown could not expect to operate a municipal school district more efficiently than the current Shelby County Schools. It is an interesting stance for him since he has often criticized SCS for wasting money.
He then mistakenly compares the SCS total budget for all funds to the study budget, which is for the General Fund only. He used the difference to project a need for $5 million in additional spending. The consulting report includes a central office organization chart and detailed headcounts by department. Ritz did not include any details in his estimates.
Finally, Ritz concludes that the citizens of Germantown will insist on programs above and beyond those currently offered by SCS. He assumes these expectations, plus inflation, will add 10% to the cost and assigns it a $6 million price tag.
How much does it cost to operate a school district? The practical answer is: However much you are willing to spend. Per pupil spending varies widely between school districts across the country. Commissioner Ritz does not take issue with the fact that the consultant’s preliminary budget is well above statutory minimums. Any Germantown contribution beyond the half-penny sales tax would be at the sole discretion of the Germantown Board of Aldermen.
There are still unknowns within the municipal school district budgets. There are even greater unknowns regarding how much the unified school district is going to cost. For Germantown voters, the question is not down-to-the-penny accuracy of a preliminary budget. Our principle concern is who will control those funds and how well the funds will be managed.