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VOL. 128 | NO. 43 | Monday, March 04, 2013

School Board’s Choices Intensify Merger Debate

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board members began making what are considered the toughest and most controversial decisions of the schools merger Thursday, Feb. 28.

But the series of votes on 10 merger recommendations at the four-and-a-half hour meeting didn’t do much to settle the emerging questions about what is motivating the board as the schools merger start date draws closer.

Some school board members indicated Thursday the decisions on school system employee benefits that for the most part adopted Shelby County Schools standards for Memphis City Schools employees will likely be followed by a “leveling down” of staffing levels to at or close to Memphis City Schools levels.

The staffing levels proposed in the budget plan taking shape have shaken the comfort level many county schools parents had about the first year of the merger.

School board members who were members of the old Memphis City Schools board were vocal in their discomfort with the impact outsourcing custodial services and adopting the county schools model for benefits will mean for city schools employees.

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, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays told attorneys for all sides in the 2-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 board voted Thursday to outsource custodial services but voted down a resolution awarding the bid to a company to realize the $11.5 million in savings. The board could consider rescinding that vote at its Tuesday, March 5, meeting. It will be the third of four board meetings over a two-week period.

Several school board members indicated Thursday the board’s decision to outsource means they will also favor 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 will 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,” replied 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.”

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