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VOL. 127 | NO. 149 | Wednesday, August 1, 2012

School Board Takes First Steps Toward Merger Supt. And Plan

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board members gave themselves a majority of the seats on a 13-member committee to begin the search for a superintendent to lead Shelby County’s two public school systems into an August 2013 merger and beyond.

The committee on which board members hold seven seats will recommend the parameters for a superintendent search by the end of August to the full board for its approval. And then the search itself would begin.

School board chairman Billy Orgel will appoint the seven board members and the full board will vote on approving six citizens not on the school board to the panel.

Meanwhile, the board authorized the superintendents of the two school systems to assemble a transition team by the end of August and bring that team to the board at its next voting meeting on Aug. 28 to begin work on the blueprint for schools consolidation submitted by the consolidation planning commission.

That transition team is to come up with a timeline for the transition process and ultimately make recommendations on the recommendations of the planning commission. The board voted to consider the planning commission’s work as a “framework” for how it wants to merge the school systems.

The transition team is different than the “transition office” recommended by the planning commission in that the planning commission recommended a transition office with staff from both school systems selected by a single superintendent over both school systems. Leaders of the planning commission, a group of 21 citizens including two school board members, and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell have pointedly urged the board to not only get moving on the transition but also to select a single superintendent to oversee the merger and the transition to the merger as soon as possible.

The board voted to put in place a group of staff selected by superintendents Kriner Cash and John Aitken that would lay out a timeline that may or may not be the detailed timeline included in the planning commission report.

“We’ve got a lot ahead of us. I don’t think we can wait. We can’t pander. We can’t do anything that delays our decision,” said school board chairman Billy Orgel at the outset of the discussion. “We have no choice. We have to open this.”

Orgel was among those on the board who unanimously supported the first steps toward the transition. He also pressed for specific dates for reaching milestones including the public hearings. Those follow 75 such sessions held by the planning commission.

“As chairman I will call special meeting after special meeting after special meeting until we get through this,” he said. “This isn’t a December-January issue. This is a now issue.”

The school board also approved on online survey through Monday Aug. 6 to gauge opinions of the consolidation plan. And the board is still arranging a series of public meeting between Aug. 13 and Aug. 25.

Some school board members have serious reservations about the most critical parts of the plan that the commission says represent substantial savings. They have also questioned the estimated savings from those recommendations.

Those include a recommendation that the board close as many as 20 underutilized schools in the western part of the city in a single school year and a recommendation that the merged school system outsource custodial and transportation services.

In other action Tuesday, the school board approved leases for two established charter schools to move into two recently closed schools.

Veritas College Prep will start its school year Aug. 20 at the old Georgia Avenue Elementary School and Freedom Preparatory Academy will start on the same date at the old Lakeview Elementary School.

The two charter leases are the first in which the Memphis City Schools system has rated unused school building by condition and based lease rates per square foot on those ratings.

Both school buildings were rated as in fair condition and leased at a rate of $4.59 per square foot. The rate for buildings in good condition is $5.10 and $5.67 per square foot for building rated as excellent. Buildings below fair condition are not leased by the school system because of the cost to the school system as the landlord to maintain them.

The lease agreements with Veritas and Freedom Prep charters include the cost of insurance and custodial services.

MCS maintains building insurance because the school system continues to own the building.

Freedom Prep is leasing all of the Lakeview property. Veritas is leasing part of the Georgia Avenue property.

The board also approved Belle Forest Community School as the name of the new southeast elementary school. Last week, at a board work session, board members debated the name of the school for an hour. Some school board members favored calling it Belle Grove Elementary School after the community instead of Belle Forest, which is the name of the street that runs by the school. The school will open in August 2013, the first year of the merged school system.

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