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VOL. 128 | NO. 8 | Friday, January 11, 2013

Cash Exits At Critical Juncture In Merger

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board members approved Thursday, Jan. 10, a severance package that ends Kriner Cash’s tenure as superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

Cash will remain through the end of July as an employee in an advisory capacity. At the end of July he gets six months of regular pay and $17,000 in moving and legal expenses as well as a letter of recommendation from the school system.

Memphis City Schools attorney Dorsey Hopson said Cash approached him late last year about working out a “severance package.” The private talks continued through the holidays.

The board approved the severance package without discussion and without objection Thursday evening at a special meeting. The approval makes Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken effectively the leader of Memphis City Schools as well as Shelby County Schools.

Meanwhile the school board continues its national search for a superintendent. That search is expected to produce a merger superintendent by mid-February and Aitken is eligible to apply.

“For perhaps the first time in my life I don’t have much to say,” Cash said after the board decision. “I have great sadness and hope and encouragement for what I’ve often said has become the second love of my life.”

Cash said the motivating factor was the need for one superintendent going into the August merger date of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

“We are at a critical juncture in this historic and very important merger,” Cash said citing the need for a single superintendent to make day-to-day merger decisions as the school board continues to vote on the overall structure of the merged school district.

“They are so important that they need one voice -- one leader and one decision maker,” he added.

Cash’s transition to an exit came at the moment the school board had its first serious debate about merger recommendations from top administrators from both school systems.

It also comes as the two school systems put cost figures and savings figures to the recommendations in a two day retreat Monday and Tuesday as they prepare to take a tentative budget to Shelby County Commissioners next month at another retreat. The commission provides all local funding to the merged school district.

“We simply need to move forward to get a budget together so the commission will know where we are,” Aitken said. “We’re kind of whittling down that deficit pretty good. But we’ve got more work to do.”

The consolidation planning commission recommendations sent to the school board last summer came with a $57 million gap between revenues and expenses for the merged school system.

The board Thursday evening sent back a recommendation that would have ended the practice of paying teachers extra if they have an advanced degree.

The recommendation allowed the pay to continue for teachers who began their work toward an advanced degree before August 2012 and complete it by August 2014. Teachers would not be paid for any other degree attained after the schools merger start date in August 2013.

Administrators from both school systems said the recommendation would work with a new salary schedule to come that might reward teachers for advanced degrees if they are in the subject area the teacher works in. But it would end the practice of paying extra for any advanced degree even if it has no application to their jobs.

Most board members expressing an opinion agreed with that goal but wanted to vote on that move at the same time they acted on the other recommendation.

“I cannot support this as it is currently written,” said school board member Patrice Robinson. “If we are saying that we value education, we do value our teachers getting higher degrees. However, we do not value a person getting a degree in nursing if we are not teaching nursing.”

The change is also part of the new Teacher Effectiveness Initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative is based on research that TEI administrator Tequila Banks said shows no connection between improved student achievement and teachers who have advanced degrees.

Board debate became more emotional as the group considered a set of nine benefits recommendations that would change health care benefits. It would lower the percentage of health care benefits paid by the merged school district to 63 percent. Memphis City Schools now pays 70 percent.

School board member Sara Lewis called it “immoral and unthinkable.”

“I am not going to support anything that is going to contribute to the poverty industry in Memphis,” she said. “It is immoral. It is wrong for us to do this.”

The steering committee of school administrators basically adopted the health care benefit recommendations of the consolidation planning commission that would represent a savings to the merged school district of $15.2 million.

Much of that savings -- $12 million comes from lowering the percentage the school system pays to 63 percent and raising the employee paid percentage to 37 percent.

The premium health care plan would cost most employees between $103 and $174 per pay period. The lower cost plan with a higher deductible that most employees currently use would save the average employee $11 each pay period.

Board members approved that recommendation and the eight others in the package emphasizing that once they see budget numbers they might make a different decision.

The board also approved a $350,000 contract extension with education consulting group The Parthenon Group for work in the month of January. The consulting firm has been working with both schools systems on an expansion of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative into county schools as well as merger recommendations to come on TEI.

The contract extension drew sharp opposition from school board member Dr. Jeff Warren.

“Are we letting people come help us who are not necessarily looking after us in the long haul?” asked Warren who said the consulting group favors the use of school vouchers and expanded use of charter schools. “When do we get away from these people?”

Cash said staff of both school systems need to the help as they work their way through individual merger recommendations from the consolidation planning commission and continue to run two separate school systems for the rest of the current school year.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ve got to get a stomach for making these decisions,” he said. “Tell us – up or down – whether you want to do them.”

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