Be always sure you are right, then go ahead!

I was recently listening to an audio book and the author cited one of his favorite quotes as being from Davy Crockett. Crockett, the famous Tennessean who served in Congress and lost his life in the battle at the Alamo was known for saying “Be always sure you are right, then go ahead!” I have heard that before but it really stuck with me this time.

We are in a political environment that is full of contradicting information and some flat out lies. It is incumbent on us as voters to wade through all this information and try to discern what is truth. We at the Germantown Voice are working together to lay out some of the key items we see as hot button issues either called out by candidates themselves or championed on social media.

First and foremost, we recommend watching the Germantown Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum. At nearly two hours it is long but it is worth your time to be an informed voter. The program begins with the Alderman and then transitions to interviews with each of the Mayoral candidates. Be open minded and listen to both candidates.

Listening to Citizens – There is a narrative that says that certain candidates are not listening to citizens. Have you reached out to your officials directly?  You might find they are very responsive. Did you know that the long term plans you hear referenced (including Forward 2020 & 2030) are all citizen led? Those plans were not just a handful of people either: they included over 1,000 participants in task forces and public meetings. The commissions that approve initial concepts for projects are all citizen led. All these meetings are open to the public, many are available on YouTube though the Germantown Municipal Television page.

Development – In general, there is a perception that the city is “pushing” development. Let’s be clear – the city doesn’t solicit development. If you listen to this YouTube video taken from the public hearing on the rezoning of the Cordova Triangle, you can hear the property owner clearly state that developers are approaching them with projects. They continue to approach the land owners even with the moratorium in place. Development is happening because land owners and developers see value in Germantown.  Can you blame them? Look at the success of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Check out the lines at Rise and the new Apple store. So be careful when someone tells you the Mayor and Aldermen are pushing development. Be sure you understand where the demand comes from. The Commission, Mayor and Aldermen are all performing their roles as checks and balances to the system to be sure proposals meet zoning, codes and overall vision of the city. There is a lot to discuss about the value of being sure we grow the right way and we will add to that conversation.

Smart Growth – This concept is limited to very specific areas of the city. The intention is to maximize the property tax and sales tax generation for these targeted areas like the central business district (think Poplar and Germantown Rd) and the Western Gateway (think Poplar and Kirby). These areas are already commercial but, in many cases have 40+ year old retail space in need of updating. The intent is to make sure those updates help generate more tax revenue thus reducing the dependence on residential property tax. Did you know that the taxable property on the 9.7 acres of Travure will be valued well over $30m when done? You would have to develop nearly 100 homes on 1/4 acre lots valued at $500k to generate the same tax revenue. And my estimates of value are likely very low. The incomplete office building was assessed at $10m in FY18 and the hotel will be worth north of $15m when complete. There is a whole other parcel to be developed as well. That also doesn’t include any sales or hotel taxes generated there.

Apartments – We have all seen plenty on this topic. There are TV ads claiming that 1,200 apartments have been added to our “Fair City.” That is false any way you look at it. As of today, the only fully approved and under construction apartments are Thornwood with 276 units. Thornwood is the first new apartment complex in Germantown in nearly 20 years. You may see a map of developments around the city that cite other projects in the approval process but it is important to know the facts about each of these.

  • Watermark was voted down 4-1 by the BMA (284 Units). However, the developer is suing the city.
  • Viridian (310 units) is concept phase only and requires additional reviews with the planning commission and BMA approval. This project has not moved forward at all (despite what you may read in come social media groups) and will get tremendous scrutiny when it does.
  • Arthur Property (Saddle Creek 265 units) is approved in concept phase only.
  • Parc (371 Units) withdrawn by applicant, not under consideration.

Portables – The fact is that the new elementary school will address all of our capacity needs at the elementary level. Depending on transition plans with the new school, portables could be gone as early as next year. Any candidate that tells you they will do it faster should probably run for school board as they don’t have the authority to change zoning or enrollment plans that would be necessary to facilitate that change. The city has been working with the GMSD Board of Education to address this problem since day one. Twenty-five portables were removed at Riverdale and the remainder will be gone from Farmington and Dogwood within the year.

Taxes – Claims of 45% increases over the last 4 years are just wrong and frankly out of context. By their math your tax rates are actual down since 1990 when the rate was $2.16. Do you pay more taxes than you did in 1990?Of course you do, that is why context matters.

Read our series on Tax Rate Truth  (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)for full details about what the increase really is and the story around why your taxes have gone up. In the last 4 years, we have added a brand new school system, helped address deferred maintenance of the all schools ($26M reduced to $11M), added a police district, seen our fire department upgraded to ISO Class One and invested in our parks and greenways. We get tremendous value for our dollars as our rates are less than half that of Memphis and our services and amenities the best in the region.

“Hold the Line on Taxes” – The annual budget process includes a 5-year projection that helps anticipate the timing of potential tax rate increases. This year the City Administrator projected we should get at 5 more years out of our current rate meaning that whomever is mayor will likely not have to raise taxes in the next term. Listen to it here.

Growth of City Staff – Did you know that in 2000 the city had 400 full time employees? In FY19, we now have 406, including 40 additional first responders. This illustrates the gains in efficiency in running city operations while shifting resources to important areas like fire and police.

Streetscape – You may have seen plans float around for Streetscape work on Exeter. This like many other issues is intended to be a wedge issue that divides the community. This issue was so misrepresented that the city had to issue a statement to clarify the status of the streetscape project. Read the truth here, straight from the city of Germantown.  This project is not actively being worked and will require significant community input before anything is approved.

Carrefour – This property was built in 1973 and has had two major remodels over the years. The developer is seeking to rework this property in three phases. If you listen to the candidate forums it appears that nearly everyone agrees that that property needs to be remodeled, even John Barzizza doesn’t seem against the idea of apartments being included as part of this project. He clearly points out that this is different than a stand-alone complex off Winchester (Listen Here). By the way, there are no fully approved projects off Winchester despite his statement.

Cell Phone Coverage – This is another attempt to create a wedge issue. Did you know the laws regarding cell towers in Germantown have been changed already? Did you know the city does not own cell towers? The carriers and their partners own them. The City has approved a new tower on the Wolf River Greenline, another at Madonna Learning Center on Poplar, added cell boosters to the schools and increased the allowable height of towers, all to improve coverage in Germantown. Now the carriers need to make their investments, or would you like your tax dollars to subsidize their profits?

Blogs – Like the Germantown Voice, Shining a Light is an opinion blog. It presents some factual information that supports a point of view. Our blog does the same. We try to offer perspective to the community. We don’t all have time to watch BMA meetings or attend commissions, but wouldn’t it be great if we did? Read a diverse perspective but keep in mind that stories can pick and choose what they include. That is why we recommend listening to the Candidate Forum above. You can hear directly from the candidates, side by side answering the same questions.

Social Media Leadership – Is your expectation that elected officials monitor social media and seek out to engage in every post? That would literally be a full-time job. Yes, major issues on social media do get the attention of your officials but usually because someone contacts them directly to start the discussion. Leading via social media is one step away from mob rule as often times the loudest voices may not represent the majority.

Germantown Bulletin Board – Did you know that the group that administers this Board, which reaches 13,000 people, is made up of open supporters of John Barzizza’s “Team?” One admin is also campaign manager for two school board candidates (Brian Curry and Angela Griffith), and is campaign manager or has done campaign work for two alderman candidates (Scott Sanders and Jeff Brown) and Mayoral candidate John Barzizza? To our knowledge there is no political diversity among this group. That matters because they approve all the new posts and moderate discussion. Originally political discussion was not permitted on that forum, now it doesn’t take long for any topic to turn political. Just something to keep in mind when reading posts in that group.

We will close with this final and appropriate quote from Davy Crockett: “I am at liberty to vote as my conscience and judgment dictates to be right.”

Will Apartments Overcrowd GMSD Schools?

Recently, the issue came up as to whether GMSD has adequately planned for growth in the event of a full build-out in the city of Germantown. Specifically, will new apartments overcrowd our schools?

Parents and the community members can rest assured that GMSD officials are continuously reviewing data and monitoring student enrollment. They have identified our district’s needs based on Germantown’s projected growth and expected demographic changes. Armed with this information, GMSD has implemented the necessary capital improvement plans to meet our needs as a growing district.

Take a look below for more specific information.

Q & A with Superintendent Manuel:

What’s the current enrollment at GMSD schools?

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What is the difference between programmatic and optimal capacities?

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What are the capacity issues for our schools?

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What is being done to alleviate K-5 overcrowding?

Check out this link to see GMSD’s newest school being built.

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Will all portables be removed in the near future from GMSD campuses?

“Yes. We will be removing all portables once the new school is built and school numbers will be able to accommodate optimal staffing.”

See the link from GMSD’s website

 

What space will be available for growth when the new elementary school opens? 

“You can see the total amount of space available once we open [the new elementary school]. Please look at the attached link below. It shows our forecasts for total build out in the city.”

See the link from GMSD

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In the event of a total city build-out, could GMSD still accommodate all students?

“Even if the city was completely built out. We would have capacity at k-5. See chart below.”

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What about middle school students, what are your plans for them?

“We do not have any capacity at the middle school level and need a wing and additional gym at Houston Middle school.”

 

These numbers are all based on a demography report, are you sure it is accurate?

“The demographer was very accurate in his forecasts for all schools. In the first year after his study, he projected within 5 students in the k-5 grade band. The second year after his study, we had 57 students less than projected because the district reduced the number of transfer students we accepted.”

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Looking for more info? Check out this link from GMSD.

The Truth Behind Overcrowding at GMSD Schools

Getting our own municipal schools in Germantown wasn’t easy. Voters in each of the suburban towns and cities approved referendums on forming municipal school districts in August 2012. But the results were voided months later in a decision by U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays and the Tennessee state legislature responded in 2013 by passing a new law that lifted the statewide ban on the creation of such school districts. With the new law, aldermen in each of the six towns set a new election date for the same ballot questions.

After these legal battles and two votes of the citizens, the Germantown Municipal School District (GMSD) opened its doors in 2014. Since then, the district has grown, and the city has benefited from these excellent schools. Overall, the district has grown 638 (15%) resident students in its first four years according to the District’s 2017 Facilities Plan.

Achievements

During those four years, the District has achieved quite a lot.

  • Houston High School has the highest public high school district ACT average in the state for the third consecutive year
  • GMSD was named a District of Distinction in 2017 for work on Exceptional Student Education Transitional Experience
  • Houston Middle School counselors were recognized with the RAMP recognition from ASCA this year (the only middle school in Tennessee to meet qualifications for the counseling program award)
  • Memphis Business Journal recognized Houston High as both the Most Challenging High School and the #1 Best Public High School
  • Each year, Houston High sets new records for students in the HHS 30+ ACT club

Because of these accolades, GMSD has become a school district of choice for many young families as evidenced by how quickly sold signs replace for sale signs in Germantown. Since 2013, the average number of days on the market for Germantown homes has decreased 65% from 113 to just 40, according to statistics from the City of Germantown.

Capacity

As a result, many are concerned about overcrowding at our schools and wonder what the GMSD administration is doing about it. You may even see or hear some candidates campaigning on this topic.

In the Spring of 2017, the district hired a professional demographer to project enrollment for the district over the next ten years. If you want to read the entire study, it can be found here.

Total district enrollment is forecasted to increase by 286 students, or 4.9%, between 2016-17 and 2021-22. Total enrollment is forecasted to decline by 108 students, or -1.8%, from 2021-22 to 2026-27.

But what does this mean for our current schools’ capacity? Many are concerned that the schools are overcrowded, and students are suffering as a result. Let’s take a look at capacity.

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Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 8.21.01 PM.pngMaximum capacity is defined as the number of students that can be accommodated within a classroom. The utilization rate determines how efficiently the student population and programs operate within the available classroom space. Utilization rates are at or above 90 percent at each school. The district strives for enrollment at each school to be below the maximum capacity allowed by state standards and as such has defined optimal capacity as 2 students per teacher below the state maximums.

To achieve an optimal capacity, the district committed to various options to balance enrollment among the elementary and middle schools. Utilization rates currently above the desired thresholds and are being addressed temporarily through the use of modular classrooms at Dogwood and Farmington. This is a legacy solution inherited from Shelby County Schools. Removing portables has been a high priority item for GMSD as evidenced by the investments at Riverdale which facilitated the removal of portables there.

However, as seen in the maps above, the opening of the new Forest Hill Elementary School in 2019 will provide relief to Dogwood, Farmington, and Riverdale Elementary. Rezoning students at Dogwood, Farmington, and Riverdale will relieve capacity issues at these schools, allow the removal of modular classrooms that have been added to Dogwood and Farmington, and allow the district to explore staffing at a more optimal capacity for teacher to student ratio.

GMSD is watching closely the growth at the middle school level as well. With support from the City, they are preparing to fund a $5 million expansion at Houston Middle School as soon as fiscal year 2020. The absolute need will be determined once GMSD has carefully reviewed growth projections, the results of revising the school transfer policy and the effects of zoning changes planned for the 2019-2020 school year.

Support from the City of Germantown

In fiscal year 2019, the City of Germantown’s general fund budget allocates $6.9 million to directly support GMSD. This includes $2.5 million in maintenance of effort funding required by the state.

What is maintenance of effort? If you remember our previous post The Truth About School Funding and Sales Taxes, we explain the term “Maintenance of Effort” (“MOE”) generally refers to a requirement placed upon many federally funded grant programs that the State Education Agency (SEA) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) or school districts, demonstrate that the level of State and local funding remains constant from year to year.(1)

Our public schools are mostly funded by revenue generated primarily from state sales tax and county property tax. Each county in Tennessee is required to operate and contribute funding for a public system of education. In order for a municipality to operate its own separate and independent district, the municipality must provide SUPPLEMENTAL funding. It is up to the municipal governing body to determine the amount and source of supplemental funding. We should all thank the administrators who crafted the wording of the resolution because they understood this and thus worded the referendum accordingly.

This is why the fiscal policy of tying school funding to a variable revenue source is dangerous. When sales tax revenues drop the only other source to pay that obligation is your property taxes. In a recession, not only would you have the negative impact of a down economy, the city would be in a position to be forced to raise your property taxes to meet the MOE requirements.

Additionally, the City of Germantown provides an additional $4.4 million to cover costs related to student safety and continuing the improvement of our school facilities.

More specifically:

  • $1 million for replacement of the failing boiler system at Riverdale School with an additional $1.5 million included in the fiscal year 2020 budget to complete the work
  • $1.36 million in debt service payments for the new elementary school currently under construction
  • $560,000 for school resource officers and crossing guards at each school
  • $500,000 for safety and security improvements at each school
  • $440,000 in debt service payments for the Riverdale addition
  • $355,000 court-mandated annual payment to Shelby County Schools
  • $200,000 each year for the next five years to help fund Houston Arts and Athletics Foundation field house construction and auditorium renovation projects at Houston High School.

As we head toward the November election, remember that your city government and the GMSD School Board actually has been planning for overcrowding in our schools and for any scenario growth in our city may throw at us.

Reference

(1)   Maintenance of Effort: The Basics