Schools Merger Expert Urges Less Panic More Transition Planning

By Bill Dries

The Nashville attorney considered an expert on school system consolidations in the state told the Shelby County school board Thursday to get ready for an unprecedented transition to merging with Memphis City Schools (MCS), work with MCS officials and expect the transition to take at least a year and a half.

“This is going to be hard,” Chuck Cagle told those at Thursday’s special meeting noting that every other school consolidation in the state has involved the larger school system taking over the smaller school system in a county. An MCS 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 results in failure for a peaceful transition.”

Cagle has been hired by the school system as its outside counsel in the current standoff between it and MCS. He’s been involved in five other school consolidations in Tennessee.

After a 90-minute question and answer session with the seven-member county school board, the board voted to authorize possible litigation in the dispute in which the MCS board has voted to surrender its charter and the county school system is trying to win special school district status to keep the two school systems separate.

Most of the questions to Cagle involved “what if” scenarios and what the school system would be required to do in such a transition.

“You sit in the big chairs,” Cagle said at one point before ending with another suggestion to consult with MCS officials and begin pursuing a transition plan whether its required or not. “Don’t panic. Be a light in the fog. Our panic time should be over.”

If there is a consolidation of the two school systems, Cagle said the seven current elected county school board members would remain on the board and serve their existing four years terms of office. Some of those terms run out in 2012 and others, elected in 2010, run out in 2014.

But the question of who they represent would become ambiguous. “You don’t know who you represent,” he said.

New board members representing the city of Memphis on the board could be appointed or elected, either in a special election or a regularly scheduled election, once the Shelby County Commission drew new district lines to reflect a countywide school board.

And Cagle recommended an “expedited” process for redistricting which will happen this year anyway with results of the 2010 census arriving in state capitols and from there in individual Tennessee counties.

The MCS system may cease to exist the day the referendum results are certified by the Shelby County Election Commission but funding for MCS would continue if the charter surrender happens during a fiscal year.

State education officials would determine a new level of funding required for the countywide school system. But Cagle characterized the state’s “maintenance of effort” formula for that as “voodoo mathematics” that are hard to predict.

Existing labor contracts for city school teachers probably couldn’t be altered in any significant way because of state law protecting teachers with tenure.

“In practical terms, I think we’re going to have to abide by that contract for a while,” Cagle said.

Other contracts for goods and services and other labor relationships would have to be examined on a case by case basis.

The Shelby County school system would control or manage any transition, Cagle said in answer to a question from county school board chairman David PIckler. But Cagle was quick to add that he recommended the appointment of a transition committee even though one isn’t required.

During a transition, he said the city of Memphis would hold title to city school buildings and property. And during a transition, the county school system could be working with City Hall to inventory and assess the condition of school property before deciding whether the new countywide school system needs it or wants it.

“That’s different from every place else in the world,” Cagle added in one of numerous references to the uniqueness of the MCS’s creation as a special school district and the political standoff. “The rest of this is just folks wandering around in the dark.”

That prompted school board member Diane George to wonder aloud, “Are we just making this up as we go along?”

“Yep,” Cagle replied.

The idea of some or all of the suburban municipalities forming their own school systems probably wouldn’t get far in the legislature which has not only a 1982 ban on special school districts but a similar ban on municipal school districts.

A special school district created for county schools after an MCS charter surrender is official could results in two education taxes in the same parts of Shelby County, according to Cagle.

As the session ended, two more legal opinions on the path to setting an election date for the MCS charter surrender were released at City Hall.

City Council attorney Allan Wade said this week’s legal opinion from Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins is “clearly erroneous.” Goins advised the Shelby County Election Commission that city council approval is required before the election commission can put the matter on the ballot and schedule an election.

He also added a few closing lines addressing critics of the election commission’s refusal to set an election date this week based on Goins’ directive.

“To the extent that there is evidence that an election administrator is willfully not fulfilling his or her duties impartially and in accordance with the law, any such person is subject to ouster under (Tennessee law),” Wade wrote. “We have been provided no concrete evidence that any election commissioner has willfully committed misconduct or neglected any duty enjoined on them by law and believe that the threat of ouster is a powerful deterrent to such conduct.”

City Attorney Herman Morris offered a “quick and dirty review” of the same issue Thursday evening.

He believes MCS can transfer administration of the school system to Shelby County schools with approval from voters in a referendum. But Morris said MCS cannot surrender its charter without approval of the Memphis City Council.

The surrender and the transfer are both covered in the resolution approved Dec. 20 by the MCS board in what Morris termed putting “two strings on their bow.

“There are two routes approved by them to accomplish the end they seek,” Morris wrote. “Either could do so alone or both together.”