More small districts breaking away from larger systems

EdBuild report says seceding districts often have higher median incomes and property values

When residents incorporated the small town of Pike Road, Alabama, in 1997, one of their major goals was to create their own school district separate from the Montgomery County system.

Voters approved a property tax increase in 2011, and Pike Road Schools now has three campuses enrolling 2,000 students and will graduate its first class in 2020.

“The school system has become the hub of the community,” says Rebecca Williams, communications and federal programs coordinator for Pike Road Schools. “The formation of a school system is definitely attracting more people to move to the town.”

Pike Road has expanded by purchasing two school buildings from the county district in the past few years. “One of the major challenges Pike Road Schools has faced is increasing enrollment with limited space in addition to offering a full athletic program without athletic facilities,” Williams says.

What district secession leaves behind

An increasing number of communities across the country are also deciding to leave larger school systems, says Zahava Stadler, director of policy at EdBuild, a nonprofit that advocates for fairness in state education funding.

Some 73 district secessions—out of 120 attempts—have occurred since 2000, and 10 of those have taken place over the past two years, according to the 2019 update to EdBuild’s “Fractured” report.

Another 17 district secession attempts are ongoing as of May 2019. “A clear majority of the successful seceding communities have higher median incomes, higher property values and lower student poverty rates; serve fewer nonwhite students; and have higher local tax rates for school districts than the districts being left behind,” Stadler says.

A district secession can also cause a regional domino effect. In Tennessee, for example, six Memphis suburbs left Shelby County Schools to form their own districts between 2010 and 2014. This occurred after the city of Memphis dissolved its school system and joined Shelby County.

“Once these communities pull away, they are often willing to raise taxes to pay more for schools,” Stadler says.

State laws vary widely, making district secession virtually impossible in some places. For example, in Utah—where four out of five breakaway attempts have failed—residents in both the original system and the seceding district get to vote on the matter. In California, a state board must analyze the financial and equity impacts, among other factors, of a proposed secession.

In North Carolina, on the other hand, a law passed in 2018 allowed four more affluent communities to form their own municipal charters after they were unable to secede from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The law also let the communities direct town funding to the schools and give residents’ children preferred enrollment, Stadler says.

‘Exclusion games’

The most recent attempt by a community to leave Jefferson County Schools in Alabama failed, but 11 districts have seceded from the Birmingham-area system over the years. The county, where the median property value is just over $133,000, still feels the impact of the last secession in 2004, when the city of Trussville left with about 7,000 students. “

We’re just now building a replacement school for the kids who were displaced, who lived outside of the Trussville city limits,” Superintendent Craig Pouncey says.

The city of Gardendale, Alabama, tried but failed in 2018 to carve its own district out of Jefferson County Schools, when a court ruled the effort was racially motivated
The city of Gardendale, Alabama, tried but failed in 2018 to carve its own district out of Jefferson County Schools, when a court ruled the effort was racially motivated

The median property value in Trussville is just over $233,000, according to the “Fractured” report. The 12 districts in Jefferson County share the countywide property tax on a per-student basis. Each time a new district forms, Pouncey says, the county system loses tax revenues for the departing student. Also, the new municipality can take over any county school buildings that are free of debt, he says.

Compounding the problem is that municipalities in Alabama also have the power to de-annex “undesirable properties,” such as large apartment complexes with transient populations. These students then return to county schools.

“You may have some areas within the county where a child may go past three or four other schools just to attend a county school,” Pouncey says.

Read more: School secessions raise resegregation fears

Ultimately, Pouncey says he sees a shift back toward segregation, and a reversal of civil rights laws put in place during the 1960s and ’70s.

“Anytime a community starts talking about its desire to have more local control, the reality is that they are trying to protect a community that, I think, is not as inclusive of others as it needs to be,” he says. “They are playing exclusion games.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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