Countywide school board members approved Thursday, Feb. 28, the first of the three most controversial schools merger recommendations they are likely to face – outsourcing custodial services across the single merged school system.
But the board the voted down the recommendation from its staff to award the bid to one of six bidders for an estimated savings of $11.5 million.
School board chairman Billy Orgel indicated he will move to rescind the vote on the second item possibly as early as the March 5 school board meeting. By giving notice right after the Thursday vote, Orgel only needs a majority vote of the board to reopen the matter instead of a two-thirds majority.
The board also approved Thursday eight other recommendations that change benefits for Memphis City Schools employees in the merger to the terms of those already in place for Shelby County Schools employees.
The changes include lowering the share of health insurance premiums the school system would pay from 70 percent for MCS employees to 63 percent, a 7 percent increase in the cost those same employees will pay. And the changes include a “spouse out” provision in which the district does not extend benefits to the spouse of a school system employee if he or she has health coverage available at their place of employment at a roughly comparable rate.
The package of eight measures comes with an estimated savings of $15.2 million with the lower percentage health insurance cost share for the school district accounting for $10 million of that.
The savings are part of a preliminary budget the staff of both school systems recommended to the school board earlier in February that would have called for $65 million in new funding from the county commission. The school board rejected that plan and instead approved a preliminary budget seeking $145 million in new funding.
The four-and-a-half hour meeting Thursday is the second of four in two weeks for the board which met earlier this week on Tuesday.
All of the merger recommendations were debated against the backdrop of a Saturday, Feb. 23, Shelby County Commission budget retreat in which county commissioners told a group of 11 school board members they should not expect to get the $145 million in new funding they sought in a preliminary budget plan.
The following Monday, Feb. 25, Memphis Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays told attorneys for all sides in the two-year-old federal court case involving the merger that he is considering appointing a special master to oversee or at least advise him on the progress the board is making.
The merger formally begins with the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. That is followed closely by the Aug. 5 first day of classes for the merged school district. Mays expressed alarm that the school board still hasn’t selected a merger superintendent or acted on the most critical merger recommendations from the consolidation planning commission.
The board has not yet acted on another recommendation that would outsource transportation services which is something Memphis City Schools have already done but Shelby County Schools have not.
The third planning commission recommendation considered critical and among the most controversial was to close 20 Memphis schools for an estimated savings of $20 million. The school system disputed the estimate and the school board is instead considering closing four schools.
The planning commission sent 172 recommendations to the school board last August.
In response to Mays request, attorneys for the county commission, the city of Memphis and suburban leaders each said they support the idea of appointment a special master to oversee the merger process.
All three developments figured prominently in the lengthy school board discussion Thursday evening.
Several school board members indicated the board’s decision to outsource means they will also favors cuts in the staffing levels in classrooms.
School board member Jeff Warren referred to it as a “leveling down” process to Memphis City Schools staffing levels or below Shelby County Schools staffing levels for teachers, assistant principals, vice principals, and teaching aides.
Warren repeatedly said citizens opposed to the cuts should appeal to the Shelby County Commission.
“This is the (planning commission) plan. This is the plan the community has been sold as the right way to go -- the only way to go,” Warren said as the board debated lowering the share of health insurance premiums the school district pays.
“I think it takes a lot more intestinal fortitude to raise taxes and support public education,” Warren continued. “I will go with the people to petition our county commission to raise taxes.”
School board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., who was one of six votes on the 23-member board against outsourcing, said he understood the “pressures of the marketplace.”
The pressures means there are jobs for all of the current custodial staff now with Memphis City Schools and more available. But the jobs pay less than those employees are making now.
“I will vote against this recommendation for one major reason – just compassion,” he said. “It is what appears to be missing from every (planning commission) recommendation. … I’m not feeling that. I’m asking my colleagues to have compassion.”
“I hate to disrupt families,” said school board member Snowden Carruthers. “But we heard what the judge had to say this week about making tough decisions. I’d rather make the decisions than have somebody come in here and make the decisions for us.”
During the debate, every board member commenting agreed the decisions were difficult and would mean some pain for employees. But the necessity is where they differed.
“We’ve got to draw our line in the sand somewhere,” school board chairman Billy Orgel said. “It’s not going to be just here. The one group it does not need to affect and I’ve only heard it mentioned one time here tonight – is the students.”