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VOL. 126 | NO. 210 | Thursday, October 27, 2011

School Board Takes Steps Back, Forward

By Bill Dries

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The two public school systems in Shelby County used the same team to evaluate charter school applications this week in the first joint proposal the Memphis City and Shelby County School systems have brought to the board for approval.

But the small move toward a full consolidation that is to come in August 2013 was countered Tuesday, Oct. 25, by a half-hour debate over setting the agenda for the first regular business meeting since the countywide school board took office Oct. 3 and approving the minutes of meetings of the once separate schools boards before October.

And the board then spent another half hour debating what it should call itself.

“It has taken us one hour to approve the minutes and decide what to call ourselves,” board member Joe Clayton said after fellow board member Patrice Robinson delayed action on her resolution to call the body the “Unified Shelby County School Board.”

“We need to identify for the public and for ourselves what we are,” Robinson argued. “We need to name it something.”

Attorneys for the still separate school systems governed by a single board agreed that there might be legal implications surrounding contracts that they want to discuss with the board.

Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. said the proposed name was “unnecessarily redundant.”

“We’re Shelby County Schools now,” said board member Mike Wissman, who was among those who argued such an action might conflict with the work of a separate transition planning commission. “That’s what the judge ordered. … I don’t see why we are making an issue of this.”

“It has taken us one hour to approve the minutes and decide what to call ourselves.”

–Joe Clayton
School Board member, expressing frustration with the lengthy start to this week’s countywide school board meeting

Some members of one of the former boards felt like they shouldn’t vote on approving the minutes of meetings they weren’t a part of. The feeling was mutual by members of the other board. So, only the former MCS board members voted to approve the minutes of their meetings before October and only the former SCS board members voted to approve the minutes of their pre-October meetings.

The other seven new members appointed by the Shelby County Commission did not

participate in what could mark the last votes of each of the old school boards.

As the full board approved two KIPP Academy charter school applications and rejected 20 others, including a set by former mayor and MCS superintendent Willie Herenton, some board members expressed concern about the fiscal impact on the school systems if the number of charter schools continues to grow.

But discussion by some on the board last week about seeking state approval for a moratorium on new charter schools until the August 2013 consolidation of the two school systems never translated into a proposal.

Board vice chairman Jeff Warren was still urging those concerned about the fiscal impact of charter schools to contact legislators.

“Let us get through this (consolidation) before we have to approve extra charters,” he said in his pitch.

In Memphis on Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam questioned such a move.

“I’m not sure I understand the two-year delay. From what I understand now, I would not be in favor of that,” Haslam said. “Charter schools have been accepted by the General Assembly. It’s going to be part of the answer for education in Tennessee. Not the entire answer, but part of the answer. And I’m not sure right now why we kind of freeze out a piece of that.”

Charter school proponents argue that the charter schools are part of both public school systems.

“Charter schools are a part of the equation,” board member Kevin Woods said after the vote. “This is not a personal vendetta against the charter school system.”

But others on the board voicing an opinion this week make a distinction about the flow of public money to those schools versus public funding for conventional schools in each school system.

“I’m really concerned about approving too many dollars going out of the system,” board member David Reaves said. “I’m concerned about the long-term prospect.”

“Where will the point come when there is a financial detriment?” asked board member Betty Mallott. “We do know that we face some financial hardship.”

Some also expressed concern about state legislation that could take the decision on charter schools out of the hands of local school boards across the state.

The legislature has already lifted the cap on the number of charter schools permitted in the state. The cap was done away with a year after the legislature raised the number of charter schools to 90.

“We have a legislative battle on our hands now,” said board member Martavius Jones.

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