Answers Emerging in School Drama

By Bill Dries

At the end of a critical week in the standoff between Shelby County’s two public school systems there still was no script for the fast moving drama.

But the moves made had all been discussed late last year as options in the faster moving minds of the political players.

The only anticipated move not taken yet is the one to court. And that may not be far behind.

A move to the ballot for the Memphis City Schools charter surrender has been delayed perhaps through February. But a new, perhaps swifter, path to the ballot requires only 25 signatures and the signatures were being gathered at week’s end.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools board members heard from their outside legal counsel that they should begin preparing anyway for the consolidation of the county’s two public school systems that would be the result of a charter surrender approved by Memphis voters.

“This is going to be hard,” said Chuck Cagle of Nashville, noting that every other school consolidation in the state has involved the larger school system taking over the smaller school system in a county.

A city schools charter surrender would put the existing county school system in charge of a much larger school system.

Cagle, whose law firm represents numerous public school districts across the state, urged the board members to “stop the panic if we can and get to the hard business of what may be very inevitable.”

“We need to start planning for the inevitable,” he said. “A failure to plan will result in failure for a peaceful transition.”

Shelby County school board member David Reaves, just elected last August, said he is able to distinguish between the need to plan and political efforts to stop the charter surrender.

“I think, from my viewpoint, we are going to move on like we have been – planning for the transition to happen – but also understanding that there are other pieces of the county that we don’t have control over,” he said referring to the possibility of some or all of the county’s six suburban cities forming their own school districts.

Cagle said it’s unlikely the Tennessee Legislature would lift a ban on new municipal school districts, which are different than the special school district status the county school board has sought for a decade to block consolidation of the two systems.

“I tell you what we don’t want,” Reaves said. “We don’t want Memphis leadership because they’ve proven, from my viewpoint, that what they’ve created is not something that’s palatable to use or the people we represent.”

What he heard from Cagle didn’t offer much comfort on that point.

Cagle confirmed that the seven existing county school board members remain on the board for what would then be a countywide school system and serve out the rest of their terms. But the board would be expanded to include Memphis representation and Memphis districts.

“Probably most of us will be gone and there will be primarily Memphis leadership,” Reaves said. “And the next thing we’ll have Memphis leadership that is representative of what we have today.”

Pickler pointed to the county school system’s non-union status and wondered aloud how that would mesh with union representation for MCS teachers. Cagle said state law is very clear on that point and that the contracts for MCS-tenured teachers would stand.

Critics accused Pickler of being excessively harsh in describing what a consolidation transition would look like.

But county schools superintendent John Aitken was more conciliatory and emphasized that his staff and MCS staff, who occupy the same building near the Mid-South Fairgrounds, are already beginning to work together on a transition, like Pickler emphasizing the county school system will call the shots.