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VOL. 128 | NO. 45 | Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Critical Merger Decision Now Centers on School Board

By Bill Dries

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The group with the most direct role in what a consolidated school system will look like and how it will operate is now the group at the center of the ongoing federal lawsuit over the merger and the reactions to it.

The countywide school board is not a party in the 2-year-old lawsuit.

But the 23-member body was created by the consent decree agreed to by all sides in the case and accepted by U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

So was the consolidation planning commission that made recommendations in August to the school board. The planning commission was also part of the Norris-Todd state law of 2011 that set the pre-consent decree terms for the schools merger including the right of the suburban towns and cities to form separate municipal school districts.

Mays is considering whether to appoint a special master to oversee or advise him on the merger process. He is weighing such a decision because of his concerns about whether the school board can or will finish the necessary work on the consolidation in time for the first day of classes Aug. 5 of the first school year of the merger.

School board members handed the planning commission report it accepted in August over to a steering committee of top administrators from the two school systems to examine and make a second set of recommendations on.

Mays had moved on in September to hearings on municipal school districts.

The school board approved the first of the merger recommendations, items about which there was little if any controversy, that same month. At its Nov. 15 meeting, the board approved 29 more recommendations on a variety of schools operations fronts.

In both cases and every case since then, that was only preliminary approval of the items for purposes of putting together a budget later.

The school board also delayed a decision in November on the planning commission recommendation to close 20 Memphis schools. That recommendation, one of the three most controversial and most critical recommendations in the judgment of many on the planning commission, was ultimately rejected. But it was not with an up or down vote on it. The board is scheduled to vote this month on a plan to close four Memphis schools instead.

Meanwhile, the timeline for selecting a merger superintendent to guide both school systems into the merger and beyond it has drifted from a school board goal of mid-February to the third week in May.

The planning commission’s recommendation was that the school board have a superintendent selected no later than the end of 2012.

In other developments, attorneys for the Memphis Education Association warned Mays in a court filing Monday, March 4, against the appointment of a special master “whose neutrality might be open to question.”

“The special master will have greater and more direct input than others with the court,” wrote Richard L. Colbert, attorney for the teachers union. “The various stakeholders like the teachers of Memphis and Shelby County, as well as the citizens of Shelby County generally, will regard the special master as a person with a unique degree of influence.”

That means, according to Colbert, that the court should exclude “those who currently serve in an official capacity with one of the parties to the litigation as well as those who are members of the Transition Planning Commission.”

In a footnote, the filing from the union also reads, “While the court may find it necessary to step in if it believes the board of education has not been sufficiently diligent in performing its public duty, the MEA respectfully submits that the court should not appoint a special master who effectively mutes the diversity of views that a multi-member public body like the board of education brings to its role.”

Memphis Education Association president Keith Williams long has had a problem with the role of the consolidation planning commission, arguing that the appointed body has overstepped its authority.

Attorneys for the city of Memphis and the Shelby County Commission have suggested three former planning commission members for the appointment should Mays decide to appoint a special master – Chairwoman Barbara Prescott, FedEx Corp. general counsel Christine Richards and Staley Cates. The Shelby County Commission also suggested retired Circuit Court Judge and former Memphis City Schools board member George Brown. Prescott is a former MCS board member as well.

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