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VOL. 127 | NO. 208 | Wednesday, October 24, 2012

First Of Many Funding Requests Approved For Merged System

By Bill Dries

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The first Shelby County government financing of the soon to be merged public school system approved Monday, Oct. 22, was about $1 million less than expected. And it drew the support of Shelby County Commissioners opposed to the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

“We are past that point in the process,” said commissioner Wyatt Bunker. “The schools are merged. … I think we all want them to be successful.”

Bunker and other commissioners who echoed similar sentiments also said the Democratic majority on the commission should drop its attempts in federal court to stop the formation of municipal school districts in the suburbs.

“No matter what happens with the municipal schools … I still have a lot of constituents in this unified system,” said commissioner Chris Thomas. “I would like to see some cooperation about the municipal schools instead of fighting us all the time.”

Bunker is a former Shelby County Schools board member. Thomas is a former Memphis City Schools board member.

Attorneys for the suburban governments, meanwhile, filed motions last week seeking to dismiss the second part of the commission’s two-part case against the formation of municipal school districts. The case alleges the suburban school districts would racially segregate school children. Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays has heard arguments and is preparing to rule on the first part of the commission’s argument, which is that the state laws on municipal school districts violate the Tennessee Constitution.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken told reporters the countywide school board is about to begin making other critical decisions on the structure and leadership of the merged school system.

“We’ve started wading through some of the 172 recommendations,” Aitken said of the recommendations from the consolidation planning commission that proposed a blueprint for the merger and the start of the unified school system. “There are many more things that have to be reconciled and planned out and agreed on. … November, December look like they are going to be pretty eventful.”

The school board next week votes on a plan to mount a national search to find the superintendent of the merged school system. The recommendation from an ad hoc committee to be discussed Tuesday, Oct. 22, at a school board work session includes hiring a consultant to conduct the search, gather community input and come up with a list of three finalists for the school board to consider.

The process would take 20 weeks with a superintendent selected and his or her contract negotiated some time in mid-February.

The timeline includes two weeks for the board to interview search firms and select one. That would be followed by five weeks in which the search firm is selected, then interviews school board members and seeks community input, works up a profile of the job and prepares ads to recruit candidates for the job.

Further along in the timeline is two weeks for school board members to interview the three finalists and “group outings” and then another two weeks for interviews of the finalists by the community.

The County Commission Monday approved $13.9 million in funding for computer software and a program to handle the human resources and financial needs of the merged school system.

The original request was for $15 million, including contingency funding in the event the project had cost overruns.

The funding is the first the commission has approved for the merged school district.

Commissioner Steve Basar proposed the lower amount. It was the estimate staffs of the two school systems originally said it would take to establish one common human resources and payroll computer system for the two school systems to be merged in August.

“I would challenge you to make sure this project is done on time and under budget,” Basar said in comments to school system officials in the audience for Monday’s commission meeting. “I’d also like to ask that you consider using some interns from the University of Memphis.”

Aitken agreed that the project could be ready by next summer at the lower dollar figure. He also said the shared Enterprise Resource Planning System now used by the Shelby County Schools system but not Memphis City Schools is an essential first step.

“This kind of helps us plan a little bit,” Aitken added. “Obviously there are many more things to come.”

Basar also talked of decisions to come by the end of the year by the countywide school board about consolidation planning commission recommendations to close 20 Memphis City Schools and outsource transportation as well as custodial services of school buildings.

“We’re making a tough decision here,” Basar told schools officials. “We hope you’ll adopt our lead and make some other tough decisions before you.”

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