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VOL. 127 | NO. 33 | Friday, February 17, 2012

Suburban Mayors Hear Lots Of Concerns From Schools Planning Commission

By Bill Dries

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The group drawing up the blueprint for a consolidated countywide public school system will plan for a school system that covers the entire county including the suburban towns and cities.

That’s what the chairwoman of the schools consolidation transition planning commission told all six suburban mayors Thursday, Feb. 16, as the planning commission talked with the mayors about their plans to create municipal school districts.

The mayors said time is too short to call off their plans as planning commission members expressed concern that the plans aren’t well thought out or realistic.

The Arlington board of aldermen is scheduled to take its final vote Tuesday, Feb. 21, on putting a referendum to voters there in May to approve the creation of an Arlington school district. The legislative bodies in Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett are on their way to final votes.

“Come August 2013, we will have a plan that can serve your children and serve them well,” planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott told the suburban leaders. “There has to be that. We’re going to take in to consideration all of your concerns. … We will have a plan that addresses many of your stated concerns. It may not go far enough.”

Asked if there was anything in the structure of a consolidated school system that might prompt the suburban leaders to halt or delay their plans and join the merged school system, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald replied, “I would never say never. But it’s unlikely. The train has left the station.”

He also cited momentum building among citizens in the suburbs to move ahead with the separate school districts.

“As a politician I don’t know how you’d be able to stand in the way of that,” he said.

“We are up against a timeline,” added Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman. “We are being pushed by our constituents.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell was among those on the planning commission who questioned whether the municipal school districts envisioned can work especially with plans to educate children not only in a particular town but across suburban town and city lines and including children in unincorporated Shelby County.

Luttrell suggested the meeting as he told the planning commission last month that it had to come to terms with the move to municipal school districts as it put together its plan for a merged school system that is due to be completed this August. The school districts will be merged effective at the start of the 2013-2014 school year which is the same date the suburban mayors plan to open their school districts if voters approve them in a set of referenda now being planned for May.

Elections of municipal school district boards of education would follow in November, the mayors said, in order for the new school boards to hire superintendents by January to prepare for an August 2013 start of the suburban school districts.

“Is the problem so compelling that you have to hit that Sept. 2013 deadline?” Luttrell asked. “Is that something that could be delayed for a year?”

Luttrell also suggested the mayors have a transition plan – an idea rejected by Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy who said there is no transition. There is only the creation of new school systems.

Luttrell was also one of many questioning the conclusions of reports from Southern Educational Strategies LLC that five of the six suburban cities are basing their plans on including how to pay for the school systems.

“I just don’t think you can do it on a half-cent sales tax or a 15-cent property tax hike,” Luttrell said of the SES funding estimates. “That really troubles me.”

Planning commission member Fred Johnson, an educator in both public school systems and a former Shelby County Schools board member, specifically questioned the SES conclusion that the cost of teaching special needs children would be paid mostly through federal funding.

McDonald cited the report. But planning commission member and countywide school board member David Pickler agreed with Johnson, saying county schools were supposed to get 40 percent of the funding for special education students from the federal government but that the federal funding has “never crested” 20 percent of the cost.

Planning commissioner member Christine Richards, general counsel of FedEx Corp., was even more critical. She termed the municipal school districts plans based on the consulting firm reports “fundamentally flawed.”

“They fail to address the most important part of this law. … What’s a municipal school district? … A municipal school district in its plain meaning serves the children who live in the municipality,” she said. “I don’t see how a federal district court judge -- which I’m sure is where this is all gong to end up – can interpret the words ‘new municipal school district’ to include what you’re proposing.”

Richards chaired a planning commission public hearing in Arlington in January that drew a healthy turnout of citizens who back a municipal school district and are opposed to schools consolidation.

“The people who do not live in Arlington are counting on representations that have been made that they will be able to keep their children in Arlington schools,” she said. “The way I look at it, there is one group sitting in this room that has clear legal authority to set forth a plan that will allow the expectations of all of those parents to be met. And that’s the transition planning commission.”

Prescott echoed the concern.

“Is that a forever commitment that you have? If your school populations grow, you will be primarily responsible for children in your municipalities,” she told the mayors. “The last thing I want to do is get into the building argument. … But in all honesty, if your populations grow and there’s not a long term commitment to continue to serve the unincorporated children that are in your system now, they could be pushed out.”

The suburban mayors have acknowledged they would need cooperative agreements for those kind of attendance zones that include unincorporated areas in the Memphis annexation reserve area as well as parts of other suburban towns and cities to pull off the school districts outlined in the five consultants’ reports.

“I’m going to rely on the experts,” said Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner. Joyner was also asked what state law permits the suburban leaders to plan now for municipal school districts that couldn’t open until August 2013 under state law.

“What law says we can’t?” Joyner replied.

Richards said later that the question Joyner responded to should be taken seriously.

Planning commissioner Tommy Hart of Collierville questioned why the suburban leaders couldn’t delay their referenda until August when the planning commission will have presented its plan as well.

“I feel you are disenfranchising your citizens. Until we put a plan on the table, what are they voting between,” he said. “They are not making a choice. They are just affirming what people in the community have talked about.”

McDonald said he explored that but that it didn’t work with the “aggressive” timeline the towns and cities are working under. He also expressed concern that parents in the suburbs might not be willing to wait until August if they don’t feel any progress is being made one way or the other.

“Some will wait if they feel like we are making movement in what they see as the right direction,” he said. “But if we hear nothing, I don’t think they’ll wait.”

Goldsworthy said there could be an exodus to private schools.

“People in our communities are really expecting that they will be able to comfortably make a decision on their children’s education sooner rather than later,” she said.

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