Leaders Examine School System Options

By Bill Dries

The idea that the consolidation of Shelby County’s two school systems will involve a choice between what one of the existing school systems has over what the other has is an oversimplification.

Sylvia Shannon reviews a reading comprehension test with third grader Keron Sykes.   

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

But there are some choices to be made by the consolidation planning commission.

The commission is weighing the idea of freezing school attendance zone boundaries for several years into the schools merger that starts in August 2013. Such boundary freezes have been attempted before mainly as a reaction to annexation.

Two groups will rally their resources to urge the planning commission to keep the Memphis City Schools Teacher Effectiveness Initiative.

TEI is the work in teacher evaluation and teacher retention being funded over several years by $90 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as $20 million in matching local private funding.

A group of religious leaders under the banner Clergy United for the Memphis Schools will make its pitch at a Tuesday, April 10, press conference.

And on Thursday evening, the Gates Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundations are among the hosts of a gathering to include MCS superintendent Kriner Cash and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken as well as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

“As we move forward with the consolidation of our two school systems, we need to ensure that the TEI not only survives but expands,” reads the announcement from Tom Marino of the nonprofit Poplar Foundation. “This is not a fundraiser. … This rally is to simply but powerfully show our support as a community for this valuable work that must continue.”

Meanwhile, the planning commission got its first look at how human resources systems in each school system compare to each other.

“The hard work is yet to come,” said planning commissioner Christine Richards, who heads the human resources committee. That committee will make recommendations to the full group on pay and benefits and the size of the workforce.

Of the 17,800 full-time staff in the two school systems, 12,500 teach in some way and the two districts combined spend more than $1 billion in pay and benefits. Base salaries account for 80 percent of that with the remaining 20 percent for health insurance, retirement contributions and other benefits.

MCS employees make $1,000 more in average base salary than SCS employees but MCS employees pay $650 more on average in health insurance costs and $600 more in average retirement contributions, according to the comparison by Boston Consulting Group.

MCS teachers make $285 more in their salary schedule than SCS teachers. SCS principals make $14,700 more than MCS principals, based on the salary schedule.

The cost of bringing teacher and principal pay to the same level once the school systems are merged is pegged at $3.5 million by BCG. That’s $800,000 to level up teachers and $2.7 million for principals with most of the leveling – $1.8 million – to close the gap among elementary school principals.

Tenured teachers cannot lose pay or benefits in the consolidation under state law. The blueprint for the consolidated school district the planning commission creates will go to the countywide school board as well as state education officials for approval. The state leaders will specifically run the numbers for teacher pay and benefits in the new system to see if they meet the requirements of state law.

The planning commissions work will also include deciding on a specific evaluation model to use for teachers and administrators as well as a professional development program for both.

Richards said the challenge is to do more than run evaluation numbers on teachers and try to push out those teachers below a certain level.

“There is a real concern that the development and mentoring has not been sufficient to help people improve,” Richards said. “If people really knew they were a (level) one or a two teacher, why would they stay in teaching for 20 years?”