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VOL. 126 | NO. 199 | Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New School Board Has Changes on Mind

By Bill Dries

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At four hours, the first meeting of the countywide school board Monday, Oct. 10, was a bit shorter than the average Memphis City Schools board meeting. It was twice as long as the longest Shelby County Schools board meeting.

Former MCS board members judged it efficient. SCS board members did not. The seven new board members don’t yet know what to make of a meeting where it took 15 minutes just to set the agenda – something other legislative bodies do in seconds.

It demonstrated the challenges ahead for the largest legislative body in local government – 23 people – tasked with operating two separate school systems on their way to merging them by the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

The new chairman of the board is businessman Billy Orgel.

Orgel is a veteran of the Metro Charter Commission that took a consolidation charter to voters in the 2010 dual referenda that killed the first effort in 39 years at Memphis city and Shelby County governments’ consolidation.

So, Orgel is familiar with working under several kinds of pressure including political pressure.

In selecting Orgel, the new board went with one of the seven new members appointed by the Shelby County Commission instead of someone from the old Memphis city or Shelby County schools boards.

Former MCS board member Jeff Warren was elected vice chairman.

Orgel judged the first meeting a success and said he’s optimistic the size of the board won’t be a barrier.

“I know that I made a list that I think we need to address going forward to the next board meeting,” Orgel said of several decisions delayed by the board Monday evening.

The decisions made indicate some board members see no reason to wait for consolidation of the school systems in the 2013-2014 school year to begin consolidating some administrative functions. And in some cases it would also resolve questions inherent in two school systems now run by a single board.

“You don’t necessarily want to wait until two years from now to begin merging certain purchasing decisions, contracts, transportation.”

–David Pickler
Outgoing Shelby County Schools chairman

“Something like purchasing might make sense to bring together sooner,” Orgel said.

Outgoing SCS chairman David Pickler, who chaired the organizational session through its entirety, said those kinds of questions will require the board to work closely with the 21-member planning commission that is working out the terms of the school systems’ merger.

“There’s going to be a lot of interaction between that planning commission and members of the school board,” said Pickler, who along with former MCS board president Martavius Jones has dual voting membership of both bodies. “You don’t necessarily want to wait until two years from now to begin merging certain purchasing decisions, contracts, transportation.”

The board voted Monday to have attorneys for both school systems report directly to the consolidated board at least for now. MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson already reported directly to the MCS board. But SCS attorney Valerie Speakman’s arrangement was to report to the county schools superintendent and the SCS school board retained its own legal counsel.

That changes with the board vote Monday evening, which came after a lengthy debate involving several of the attorneys serving on the school board.

One of them, Vanecia Kimbrow, pushed for the change saying it was “totally improper” for the school systems to have attorneys that don’t report directly to the board.

The board still has to make a long-term decision somewhere not too far down the road about who will be the general counsel for the consolidated school board.

Hopson’s contract allows for him to serve as general counsel in that event. But if he’s not general counsel to such a school system, it triggers a buyout clause in his contract he could exercise.

Hopson emphasized that he has no desire to leave the school system and that he and Speakman have worked well together for the respective school systems.

Kimbrow’s issue with other functions is saving money now.

“I don’t know that we necessarily delay places where we can save,” she said, agreeing with Pickler that the board will have to work continuously with the planning commission.

“I don’t think there was ever an expectation that we wait until they package a total product 10 months from now and that we then approve it as one package. I think that would not be wise but rather we look at the operation as we go.”

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