Countywide Board to Consider Closing 21 Schools

By Bill Dries

When countywide school board members finish their work session Tuesday, Nov. 20, the real work will begin.

AITKEN

That’s when the school board will get back to the work of acting on schools merger recommendations from the consolidation planning commission.

CASH

The first order of business at the special voting meeting and the item expected to dominate most if not all of the board’s time at the meeting is one of the three most controversial recommendations made by the planning commission: close 21 Memphis City Schools that are under-utilized. Six are in Northwest Memphis – three elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools – and 15 are in Southwest Memphis – seven elementary, six middle and two high schools.

Last week, the board gave unanimous approval to a group of 29 recommendations, all of them part of a bundle of recommendations color-coded green.

The green designation means the staffs of the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools have reviewed those recommendations and were far enough along to consider including them in a tentative budget for the first fiscal year of the merged school system, which begins July 1.

“If it’s green, it gets thrown in the budget hopper,” is how Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken put it at Thursday’s session. “Tonight’s decision does not mean finality. But it allows staff to begin full or partial consideration. Some will come back as contracts. Some will come back as policies. Almost all have budget implications.”

The board decisions won’t be considered final until it approves the budget for that first fiscal year. Still to come before that vote is a more precise fiscal note on how each item will impact the budget in terms of expense or savings.

In some cases, the fiscal note will not be the same as the estimate of the planning commission. The two school system administrations will also differ with the planning commission on how and whether some recommendations should be carried out.

“We are together on all of these recommendations,” Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash said of himself and his staff, and Aitken and his staff on the green recommendations. “This is a unified administrative front that is before you tonight. We don’t have majority and minority reports tonight. There may be in the future.”

Some of the recommendations approved are aspirational. Those recommendations set broad goals or state purposes the merged school system will pursue. Others are a common pursuit already present in both schools systems.

Along the way, the school board members discussed and debated such broad issues as the connection between the merged school system and charter schools and the state’s Achievement School District.

“We are together on all of these recommendations. This is a unified ... front.”

–Kriner Cash
Superintendent, Memphis City Schools

There was a lively discussion about which school construction projects should get priority – new schools or renovations and maintenance to older schools.

And the board previewed what is sure to be a detailed discussion to come later on the green recommendation to increase access to advanced placement courses with a goal of access to them by all students. At least in the beginning, some of that access would come through computer hook-ups to a single classroom for students in several schools. That prompted a discussion about which schools would get access to an advanced placement teacher in a classroom.

Still another recommendation approved by the board Thursday was to approve an office of transportation to run the transportation needs of the merged system on a day-to-day basis. School staffers told board members such an office will be needed whether the board decides to run its own buses or outsource the service to a private company. The size of the staff for that office would depend on which option the board picks in what is expected to be another of the three most controversial and debated recommendations from the planning commission.

The commission recommended outsourcing bus services as well as custodial services in school buildings. Both of the outsourcing recommendations are color coded yellow, meaning school systems staff are still weighing them, but are close to a position for the board to consider. Red items are items that the school systems staffs are working through “major challenges” on, according to Aitken.

The board approved other non-controversial recommendations at a September meeting on which there was broad agreement and no significant policy questions or fiscal concerns. Those are color-coded blue.