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VOL. 126 | NO. 168 | Monday, August 29, 2011

Schools Consolidation Saga Turns Corner

By Bill Dries

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Where does a 23-member countywide school board meet? “FedExForum is open,” replied Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler last week to the question from fellow board member David Reaves.

Reaves was serious and county schools superintendent John Aitken already had the item on his list of things to talk about with Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash.

The schools consolidation saga that began informally in November, formally in December, has turned another corner.

The two school boards, soon to be united and joined by seven appointees of the Shelby County Commission, seem to be past the debate over schools consolidation. The best indication of that is the first point in the 10-point settlement approved by both school boards last week.

“The parties adopt and agree to abide by the court’s order of Aug. 8, 2011,” it reads, meaning there will be no appeal and no delay in consolidation pending an appeal of the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays that affirmed the two school systems would merge in the 2013-2014 school year.

The settlement worked out in mediation in lieu of a second ruling covered the remaining issues not covered in Mays’ ruling.

With no appeals both school boards are focused on the reality of a transition that begins Oct. 1 when the new countywide school board takes over the two school systems.

Questions have replaced positions for the most part. One is when consolidation begins if it hasn’t already.

“How is that not effective consolidation?” Reaves asked, referring to the 23-member school board.

The two school systems still operate separately with separate superintendents.

Pickler conceded the new countywide school board could move to fire either or both superintendents. But he noted each has a contract through 2013 and there would probably be complications, legal and financial, if the board to come made such a move.

Other questions are about the relationship between the countywide school board in the lawsuit settlement and the consolidation planning commission in the Norris-Todd state law governing schools consolidation.

MCS board president Martavius Jones answered by saying the new school board will have the view of both school systems from 30,000 feet and the planning commission’s view will be from 15,000 feet.

The other answer is that the planning commission makes recommendations and the board makes decisions.

County school board member Michael Wissman described the planning commission as the group that “does the leg work” on the road to the merger.

Where there are still positions, they are evolving positions.

“We’re off to a great start,” MCS board member Jeff Warren said after the board approved its five appointees to the planning commission. “I think this is a great way to not cut the baby up.”

Warren had been one of the no votes in the board’s crucial December vote to surrender its charter. His original top three for the planning commission were two MCS administrators and fellow board member Freda Williams, a former MCS administrator. Warren said each would still be good choices.

But he said with both boards still around, albeit in a different form, his thinking had changed. The board members could make some of the points and bring some of the viewpoints he thought his original three would bring to the table.

County school board members talked about bringing in outside expertise.

“If we don’t come up with a model that solves the problems, then we’re just going to get what we have today,” Reaves said.

Pickler said he has already had discussions with some of the nonprofit foundations involved in education reform about financing such expertise.

Fellow board member Snowden Carruthers said there is value in homegrown points of view to counter “going too far outside to people who don’t understand your particular situation.”

Jones pointed out that the MCS board included a resident of Collierville in its planning commission choices and that choice seems to speak to the need for expertise.

The MCS board has appointed former MCS board member Barbara Prescott, former SCS board member Fred Johnson, Kenya Bradshaw of the Stand for Children group, University of Memphis professor Reginald Green and University of Memphis law school professor Daniel Kiel.

Green, who lives in Collierville, is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis. He is a former teacher, principal, deputy superintendent and school system superintendent. And he worked in Louisville, Ky., during that city’s school system consolidation.

“This was not a territorial thing,” Jones said of the selections. “This is our best effort to bring this community’s greatest minds together.”

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