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VOL. 128 | NO. 34 | Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Schools Merger Issues Moving on Several Fronts

By Bill Dries

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The schools merger issue is moving again on several fronts less than six months before the first school year of the consolidation begins.

The movement began with the release of a preliminary schools budget for the first year of the merger that shook many county and city schools parents out of the mindset that the merger would mean few changes at the school level.

What shook them was a look at the staffing models for the consolidated school system and the elimination in county schools of vice and assistant principals as well as teaching assistants at some schools.

“The old Shelby County Schools district had a very rich staffing model, which amounts to about $80 million extra a year,” school board member David Reaves said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “That basically has somewhat inflated the unified school district’s new budget number to $145 million.”

“There will be some amount of impact to some schools. I’ve noticed particularly in these formulas that the … middle schools were hit hardest. That concerns me.”

– David Reaves
Countywide school board member, on "Behind the Headlines"

Reaves as well as school board chairman Billy Orgel and board member Tomeka Hart were also on the program hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News. The program can be seen at The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

Reaves met recently with principals about the impact of the original budget plan.

“The cuts specifically that they talked about really hammered them hard on all of the professional development, all of the standards the district is trying to enforce, all of the testing. When you start cutting assistant principals out of those roles then it puts a lot heavier burden on the teachers,” he said. “There will be some amount of impact to some schools. I’ve noticed particularly in these formulas that the … middle schools were hit hardest. That concerns me.”

The board’s preliminary budget to the Shelby County Commission seeks $145 million in new funding from the county to restore those staffing cuts. But neither Orgel, nor Reaves nor Hart believe the County Commission will approve it.

Meanwhile, Hart wanted the board to consider “an extension of the effective date of the merger for one (school) year,” according to an email she sent board members Friday, Feb. 15.

At the Tuesday, Feb. 18, school board work session, the board voted down a move by Hart to add the item to the agenda. Hart's resolution would have directed school systems administrators to "take measures to seek an extension of the merger date."

The school board also voted down adding another resolution by board member Patrice Robinson to "slow" the merger by implementing in August only those parts of the merger required by the letter of a federal court order and settlement of that part of the federal court case.

During the interview program, which was recorded Friday, Feb. 15, Hart made no mention of a move to delay the schools merger.

But she, Orgel and Reaves talked of the need for a better long-term plan for a combined system and possibly a phased-in merger plan over several years.

“We have so many schools and so many are under utilized,” Reaves began as he talked about the “urban education model” in city schools. “And over the years, we’ve not been able to get to the point where we have larger schools full of more children adding more educational programs. That is an expensive model that is not sustainable as well.”

Orgel then said the change isn’t as simple as closing 21 under-utilized schools all at once as was recommended to the school board by the transition planning commission last year.

“Instead of just putting a number on it and a dollar figure and then working your way toward it, I’d like to look at the communities where the schools are located – figure out how the feeder pattern looks, if the elementary schools are not feeding the middle and high schools,” Orgel said. “If we’ve got seven or eight high schools in southeast and southwest Shelby County and they are under utilized … let’s put a facility centrally located that can be a larger high school.”

Orgel conceded that would take time and he and Reaves said it would mean paying more in capital costs, which are funded through bonds and not general fund revenue to the school system from the property and sales tax rates.

“It needs to be thoughtful,” Orgel said. “It doesn’t need to be us sitting in a board meeting and taking a pen and scratching through this one and playing games with people’s lives.”

Hart’s motion is the second time a merger delay has been advocated by a school board member.

Countywide school board member David Pickler suggested last March a delay to those on the schools consolidation planning commission.

Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott said most of the 21-member panel that made recommendations to the school board on the merger structure was opposed to a delay.

Pickler didn’t pursue the delay as other events intervened including a Tennessee Attorney General’s legal opinion saying the move to suburban municipal schools districts couldn’t begin until the August 2013 date for the merger to begin. That was followed by the introduction of new legislation in Nashville to change the terms for municipal school districts. Those measures wound up making the legal opinion a moot point.

But the changes via the legislation were struck down in November in a ruling by Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

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