The special master in the schools merger federal court case says his first order of business is to look at the paperwork and other documents of the case and what has been done so far in the merger.
“First I’ve got to review the documents and have a plan of addressing and talking to a list of individuals I need to talk to,” said Rick Masson, who was appointed special master last week by U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.
As outlined in Mays’ order appointing him, Masson is responsible for reporting to him on whether the countywide school board is making progress on the schools merger on terms that all sides agreed to in 2011.
“I am trying to facilitate action,” Masson said. “That’s not in the order. But if you read the order you see words like ‘assist’ and ‘coordinate’ and ‘monitor.’”
Masson started the job he was appointed to by Mays the same month he started as a senior director at Caissa Public Strategy LLC, a consulting and marketing firm.
Many of the political players in the schools merger court case and those affected by the merger were at a Downtown reception at Caissa’s offices Thursday, March 7, to mark Masson’s hiring. They included Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Shelby County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz and countywide school board member Kevin Woods.
“I am trying to facilitate action. That’s not in the order. But if you read the order you see words like ‘assist’ and ‘coordinate’ and ‘monitor.’”
Schools special master
“We’re positioned to make those tough decisions,” Woods said of recent school board votes on planning commission merger recommendations submitted to the board last August. “Any help he can add, we welcome it.”
Masson was guarded in his statements about how the process will work, which is normal with special masters appointed in ongoing court cases. Usually their only specific public statements about their work come in court documents or in reports given in open court.
“I’m an officer of the court and I don’t think I need to express an opinion or even a strategy until it is complete,” Masson said as he talked about the two bodies at the center of the merger – the countywide school board and the Shelby County Commission.
“I’m convinced that they have the same objective I have, which is let’s have a first-class school (system) ready when these kids start in August,” he said. “I’m confident in the fact it’s their objective and it’s mine.”
Masson is lead strategist on local and regional projects for Caissa, a firm that works to stimulate private investment in public projects.
He is a former city of Memphis finance director and chief administrative officer.
Meanwhile, school board member David Reaves responded to claims by Ritz in an opinion piece in The Memphis Flyer that some school board members are dragging their feet on the merger. Ritz contends the hesitation “plays well” in the Tennessee General Assembly where municipal school districts legislation is pending for the merger effort to “publicly struggle.”
“The votes of our suburban board members have always supported the premise to make the SCS system the best it can be while we exist on the board,” Reaves wrote in a response emailed to Ritz. “And I challenge you to find one vote to the contrary we have taken on the board.”
Reaves also countered that the school board and schools staff have completed the “lion’s share” of the merger planning.
“Our school boundaries are set. Children who live in a zone know where they will go to school,” he wrote. “The transfer process is working great. The optional school process is working fine.”
Like Woods and school board Chairman Billy Orgel, Reaves contends the building of the merged school system’s structure is making progress despite some earlier delays and inaction.
“We have or are implementing as many (planning commission) recommendations as practical this year and foresee phased implementation of many others over the next several years,” Reaves wrote. “The administration is implementing most operational decisions to marry staffing models up with the final budget.”
The same day Mays appointed Masson as special master, attorneys for the city of Memphis in the lawsuit offered a very different assessment in a filing.
It was the city’s response to a call by the Memphis Education Association for Mays to specifically avoid appointing a master who had served on the planning commission.
In the city filing, Memphis City Council attorney Allan Wade wrote that the school board has “by all objective standards not made any meaningful progress in implementing any transition plan.”
“In fact, on most decisions the Board of Education’s diversity of opinions has resulted in gridlock rather than consensus,” Wade added.