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VOL. 128 | NO. 174 | Friday, September 06, 2013

Masson’s Role Just One Chapter in Merger

By Bill Dries

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Six months after he took on the assignment of special master to the Shelby County schools merger, Rick Masson’s job is over for U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

MASSON

“The transfer contemplated by the consent decree has been accomplished,” Mays wrote in his order Wednesday, Sept. 4. “The special master has performed his duties fairly and efficiently, and his duties have been completed.”

Masson was appointed by Mays in March after a status conference in which Mays asked for an update from the school system’s legal counsel, Valerie Speakman, on how many of the merger recommendations from the transition planning commission had been acted on by the school board.

At that point, the board had not made any decisions on the most controversial and far-reaching recommendations. That prompted Mays to appoint Masson to report to the court on the progress the school system was making toward the formal July 1 start of the new fiscal year and the start of the unified school district.

In his March order appointing Masson, Mays was clear that his purpose was not to have the court take over management of the schools unification process and make decisions. But if the school board couldn’t “at a minimum” tell parents the schools their children would attend and how they would get there, and if it didn’t have an established curriculum with teachers in place – all “in adequate time before the beginning of the school year” – he was prepared to do it with Masson’s advice.

Before taking that step, he added, he would have consulted with all sides.

Mays never took the step, as other events outside of the court case came into play.

He appointed Masson on March 5. Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken resigned and his contract buyout was approved by the countywide school board on March 19. That made Dorsey Hopson, already interim superintendent of Memphis City Schools, the superintendent of both school systems.

In appointing Masson, Mays had specifically urged the school board to pick a single superintendent to guide the path to the merger as quickly as possible.

Masson attended school board meetings, watching the 23-member school board work. And Hopson didn’t hesitate to point out to board members that Masson was watching and reporting to Mays on the progress they made. A few times he even added that if the board didn’t act quickly as he put the most controversial parts of the unification before them, the court might.

Some on the board contend that their decisions on the merger recommendations were just reaching the point of considering the closing of schools and outsourcing custodial and transportation services when Masson was appointed. Others on the board point to other indications like the board’s decision to outsource custodial services without awarding the contract to a private company until a few weeks later, after the board balked at the contract the first time.

Either way, the board started making decisions on specific recommendations from Hopson, who this week saw his status change from interim to permanent superintendent pending reaching contract terms with the school board.

The merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems in the strictest sense of the term “merger” may have been accomplished and Masson’s role in that completed. But it is just one part of a multipart reformation of public education in Shelby County. And even that part is still moving.

Mays asked last month for all sides in the court case, which began as a move to stop the merger, to submit positions on what, if any, other issues are left for him to decide. There remains a two-part challenge of suburban municipal school districts by the Shelby County Commission.

But all sides in the case requested a delay in filing positions, as attorneys for the commission continue talks with attorneys for the leaders of Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities on a possible settlement of the rest of the case.

Mays extended the filing deadline to Oct. 22.

Voters in each of the six suburban towns and cities elect boards for their school systems on Nov. 7.

And the start of those school systems, in the 2014-2015 school year at the earliest, would change the merged school district that remains as it enters its second year.

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