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VOL. 127 | NO. 64 | Monday, April 02, 2012

Consolidation Planning Remains in Flux

By Bill Dries

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The way some on the schools consolidation planning commission see it, the group has some momentum going in its goal of selling a still-forming consolidated school system plan to parents – urban and suburban.

But that momentum is in danger if suburban leaders favoring municipal school districts are able to resume a march toward their goal this year. And they could as the Tennessee Legislature is again showing an interest in the issue.

“One thing that we need to do is help this community find certainty – certainty that they are going to have an opportunity to see the plan that this commission comes up with, talk about that plan, evaluate that plan and understand that plan,” said planning commissioner Christine Richards.

Richards, an attorney, proposed a resolution that would have backed legislation moving up the lifting of the statewide ban on municipal school districts to January 2013. But she added that no actions including a referendum on municipal school districts should start until then and that the municipal school districts shouldn’t open classes until August 2014, a year after the merged school district opens for classes.

The resolution also urged the legislature to create a legal definition of a municipal school district that would clarify whether its boundaries are limited to a city or town or can take in areas outside the borders of the city or town.

And the resolution requested that the countywide school board extend the contract of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, which would make him the superintendent of the consolidated school district for its first two school years.

When the first part of the resolution was defeated in a 6-10 vote, Richards withdrew the rest saying it would have “limited usefulness” without the first part.

Her resolution was also the victim of a shifting landscape in Nashville. Word of an amendment to possibly restore the idea of referenda this year on creating municipal school districts reached the planning commission Thursday at the start of its meeting.

Richards said she was concerned about “the lack of an opportunity for people to really understand the difference between what will be in the plan that comes from this commission and what will be the options for the municipalities.”

“The reality of it is there are actions under way in Nashville that potentially impact our ability to prepare a plan that would be implemented in August of 2013 for all of the students who reside in Shelby County,” Richards added. “The important thing for this commission is to be able to present a plan to this community that shows what a merged school district of all of the children who are currently in Memphis City Schools and all of the children who currently attend Shelby County Schools will look like in August 2013.”

Suburban leaders, however, are determined that their school districts should start the same school year the consolidated district opens for classes – August 2013.

Richards said if the move to municipal school districts can’t start until January, the suburban leaders couldn’t realistically start a school district before the 2014-2015 school year – a year after the merger. If they did, she said it would be a “travesty” that might take the merged school district down with it.

Others on the commission thought the planning commission shouldn’t get involved in the setting of terms for creating municipal school districts or the politics surrounding that.

“I have been torn knowing this day would come,” said planning commissioner Tommy Hart who saw the same dilemma Richards did but saw it differently. “I just don’t see in our charge that we have a right to remake what we’ve been told to do.”

“We have not developed a plan,” said commissioner Martavius Jones who is also a countywide school board member. “They have rejected a plan that does not exist.”

Jones talked of planning for “the surviving majority of the district.”

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, also on the planning commission, countered that the group has rejected the idea of a consolidated school system that includes municipal school districts with their own elected school boards.

“Why can’t the planning commission plan acknowledge municipal school districts as part of the consolidation plan?” he asked.

Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott said that wouldn’t be a merged school system.

“That’s two local education authorities (LEAs). Our charge is to merge those two,” she said. “I can’t for the life of me see how including six other LEAs in the plan merges the two.”

After the vote, commissioner Jim Boyd said the group was being “ill-served” by the legislature and complained that he “constantly feels undermined.”

“We are creating a structure that has no solid foundation,” he said.

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