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VOL. 10 | NO. 7 | Saturday, March 01, 2014

Demerger Debate

School assignments change, some schools close and school system borders become more porous

By Bill Dries

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In five months, a new school year will begin in Shelby County. And for a second straight academic year, many parents will be able to say it is unlike any in their lifetimes.

The first and last school year of the unified Memphis City and Shelby County Schools systems will be followed by what educators are calling the “demerger.”

In August, the Shelby County Schools system will encompass the city of Memphis and the unincorporated areas of Shelby County while the six suburban towns and cities in the remaining territory in Shelby County are each scheduled to open their own separate public school districts.

And five months out is cutting into the always-volatile relative comfort level of parents.

But the demerger will not be as simple as breaking apart the unified school system into smaller pieces.

Parents are awaiting key decisions from the school boards about attendance zones and similar changes crucial to determining which, if any, public system they will be in. And leaders of the individual systems are waiting on parents to give them some idea of whether they want to be part of the new suburban systems or try to find space in the revamped Shelby County Schools district.

“We call it shooting at a moving target,” said Collierville Schools superintendent John Aitken.

All seven school systems are circulating some version of an “intent form” for the parents of students that is a way of giving each system some idea of how students would be distributed along borders made porous by open enrollment possibilities and the resulting competition for students, which also includes charter and private institutions.

The intent forms are backed by pitches – efforts to persuade parents in unincorporated Shelby County to cross the borders one way or another.

Shelby County Schools leaders have a head start in what some suburban parents are describing as a “hard sell.” That is what SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson envisioned as the suburban superintendents have been taking the first steps to build their school systems from the ground up.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

They started the first full week in January with no other staff, a school board, a desk, a computer and a telephone.

At about that time, Hopson said, “We’re working on a strategy and I’m going to roll it out very quickly on how do we recruit and retain the highly effective teachers who work in schools that are in the county, that are in the municipal school districts. … We’ve got to recruit teachers, recruit administrators, recruit students all the while not really being certain what the district is going to look like.”

Hopson is also developing contingency plans in the event one or more of the suburban districts decide to delay an August debut.

The suburbs are expected to move into their own hard sell of parents by the first week in March.

Now that they have a better idea of where Shelby County Schools is going with its attendance zone changes, the suburban superintendents will begin to finalize their attendance zones and set the terms for open enrollment in their schools.

But many suburban parents are just now realizing a fundamental original premise of the suburban school districts changed last year.

The suburban effort began with the bedrock idea that the six systems would largely keep the attendance zones they had in place as part of the consolidated countywide system.

In the merger, the zones for the suburban schools were the attendance zones used when all public schools outside the city of Memphis were part of the legacy Shelby County Schools system. The zones were frozen going into the merger. As the freeze thawed, the plans to keep those attendance zones in the suburbs began to fall apart for several reasons.

The consolidated Shelby County Schools, led by Hopson, decided it had an obligation to continue educating those children in unincorporated Shelby County, even in the annexation reserve areas of the suburban cities, because of the uncertainty about how much room there would be in the smaller school systems.

In a space squeeze, students who live within a town’s borders come first. Those outside the town limits get in depending on any space left – if there is any left. If that changes from one academic year to the next, the school system has to find space for the children who live in the town.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, seen here at a recent Bartlett Schools board meeting, said it will cost several million dollars to build a new school. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Strangely enough the unified system said, ‘You are not educating our kids,’” Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald told a group of 100 at a February meeting of the Greater Bartlett Council of Neighborhoods. “The press kept saying we were going to say that.”

There was also a legal problem with making children outside the city limits of a given suburban school system a permanent part of that system without elected representation for their parents on that particular school board.

The bottom line for the suburban head counts is they will probably be lower than original estimates. Southern Educational Strategies, the consulting firm hired by all six suburban school systems, is preparing revised estimates.

Bartlett’s revised count came in at around 1,400 less than the original estimate of 9,029 without open enrollment.

That might suggest some space in schools, but which ones? A common feature of school planning among the seven public districts is the flow of students from elementary to middle to high school that might strain the capacity of some institutions in the chain while others have space.

“It will cost several million dollars to build a new school,” McDonald added, citing an estimated debt service of $100,000 per $1 million per year for something that might cost $40 million to $60 million. “It will be a little while before we have that money.”

McDonald has suggested a ninth grade academy at a Bartlett middle school could create some space at Bartlett High School. But that is a decision for the Bartlett school board, he emphasized.

Some Bartlett parents told him they are getting a “hard sell,” in the words of one parent, from the principal of Bolton High School in particular for them to stay at Bolton.

“When is Bartlett going to step up and do that for our children,” one mother asked McDonald. “My child is going to Bartlett. But I know there’s a lot of parents holding back, waiting to hear what Bartlett has to offer.”

The mother of an Appling Middle School eighth grader admitted her husband is pushing Bolton High School for the ninth grade while she wants Bartlett High School.

Bartlett High School, which is also doubling as the site of the school system’s headquarters, holds its open house the first week in March to kick off its pitch to parents.

Shelby County Schools board member David Reaves, who represents the area, also urged Bartlett parents to consider a second fiscal year of budget cuts SCS is about to endure.

“Right now, understand the sell. (Bolton principal) Chad (Stevens) wants to keep as many kids out there as possible and I get it,” he said. “But also realize that you are no longer dealing with legacy SCS anymore. Now you are going to be dealing with a staffing formula that very much looks like the MCS legacy staffing formula, which means a lot bigger classes sizes and many times less course offerings. … I believe there will be cuts at the school level.”

Meanwhile, Lakeland leaders are exploring a referendum-based bid to annex the Bolton area. If the town leaders go further, it could go to voters in that area on the August ballot, days after the new school year begins.

The demerger reflects a desire for open enrollment at schools that parents prefer. There are several ways SCS parents can exercise that option from optional schools to the choice parents of children in failing schools have by state law, to the recently opened general choice transfer process that will reopen after the SCS attendance zones become final.

Most, if not all, of the suburban districts will have approved open enrollment policies by the end of March.

“We always had a transfer policy in Shelby County Schools,” said Aitken who is the former superintendent of Shelby County Schools. “By law you still have to have an intradistrict transfer, even though the choices are going to be seriously limited in some of your smaller districts. Open enrollment, quite honestly, is new to all of us.”

In Shelby County Schools, the issue is too much space overall in a shift of school-age population out of the west to the east.

The SCS board voted in late February on a slate of 10 school closings for the new school year.

Meanwhile, Hopson is struggling with what to do with high school-age students in the Shelby Forest and Northaven areas of unincorporated Shelby County for 2014-2015.

Beyond then, Hopson wants to turn what is now Woodstock Middle School back into a high school, which it was until 1970, and make E.E. Jeter Elementary School a K-8 school that feeds into Woodstock.

Hopson proposed splitting the 412 students between Raleigh-Egypt High and Craigmont High. SCS board members predicted the parents of those children would opt for open enrollment in Millington Schools and never return to the Shelby County Schools.

His alternatives include zoning the teens to Bolton High School for a school year or an interlocal agreement with Millington Schools leaders for them to stay another school year at Millington Central High until Woodstock High is ready.

Aitken describes Collierville as more “removed” from the boundary questions the other suburban districts are dealing with, with one notable exception.

Collierville and Germantown leaders are working through what happens when approximately 800 Collierville teenagers who currently attend Houston High School in Germantown make an anticipated move in August to Collierville High School.

Houston High School becomes the only high school within the Germantown Schools system as Germantown High School remains part of Shelby County Schools.

The impact on Houston High is still taking shape because Shelby County Schools leaders are seriously courting the parents of Germantown High students who live in Germantown to stay in the school with open houses and an optional schools program that aligns with Germantown Elementary and Middle.

Collierville High School is the only high school in Collierville’s system.

“The real big issue right now is working with Germantown. You have so many Collierville kids who in current attendance zones go to Houston Middle, Houston High and Dogwood Elementary,” Aitken said, referring to three schools that will be part of the new Germantown Schools system. “We are trying to work with them on trying to develop a smooth transition plan on how to handle those kids who are caught up between two municipal districts.”

Whatever the transition plan is, it will affect how much Collierville is able to use open enrollment.

“We are going to be particularly limited at the high school level because of space. For the next few years we are going to have to watch that carefully. It’s going to trickle down. We’re seeing growth out here,” he said talking of one of several changes not directly related to the demerger that are affecting the demerger nevertheless. “The landscape has changed. There’s more competition and more choices for parents now than ever before.”

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