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VOL. 127 | NO. 247 | Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Commission Finds Barriers to Comparing Pre-K

By Bill Dries

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The idea of universal pre-kindergarten in public schools across Shelby County – or at least an expansion of pre-kindergarten access with the coming August merger of city and county schools – is one goal of the schools merger that has a broad consensus.

But Shelby County commissioners taking a closer look Monday, Dec. 17, across the three segments of pre-k classes now available in Shelby County found unifying them will be hard work.

“This patchwork of pre-kindergarten is very confusing,” said county Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy during the discussion.

Memphis City Schools has approximately 4,000 children in pre-kindergarten, Shelby County Schools has about 280 and Shelby County Head Start has 2,400, according to the estimates commissioners got Monday during the preliminary discussion.

It is the first public discussion among commissioners, who will vote on the merged school system’s budget next spring, since a half-cent countywide sales tax hike failed on the Nov. 6 ballot. Proponents pushed the tax hike as a way to fund a pre-kindergarten expansion with the half of the $60 million in revenue that would have been generated by the extra half-cent on the rate.

“We ought not just sit on our hands,” said County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz as he pushed for a comparison of the pre-kindergarten systems in each public school system.

Ritz is looking for how students from the three types of pre-kindergarten classes perform. The first time those students are tested in a standardized way is at the end of second grade.

Ritz wants a look at the most recent batch of third graders rather than waiting three to four years for new results.

“This patchwork of pre-kindergarten is very confusing.”

–Harvey Kennedy
Chief Administrative Officer, Shelby County

The two school systems don’t share information.

“Can’t you ask them?” Ritz asked Memphis City Schools officials of Shelby County Schools information at the session. “I think I can help you get it.”

Memphis City Schools officials said they don’t even get a look at the attendance rolls for other pre-kindergarten programs including Head Start or private developmental day care when students enroll in kindergarten. They rely on parents to tell them.

“Has anybody really figured out how that would work?” Kennedy asked the city schools officials. “Has there been any planning with regard to the private, with the Head Start, with the Memphis City Schools, with the county schools? Has there been like a subcommittee to try to make that thing work and really define the cost of that?”

Memphis City Schools pre-kindergarten director Carolyn Harvey is on a task force that is looking at the goal of universal pre-kindergarten in Shelby County.

“That’s the question – define universal pre-k,” she told Kennedy.

In Memphis City Schools, about 12,000 children entered kindergarten this school year, three times the number of children who are in the system’s pre-kindergarten classes.

The schools consolidation planning commission recommended a phased-in expansion of pre-kindergarten in the merged school system at a rate of 25 classrooms per school year.

“That is a very lofty goal,” Harvey said.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Commissioners approved Monday a $981,897 contract for Head Start services to be provided by Porter-Leath.

In other action, the commission delayed a final vote on a “wage theft” ordinance.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the sponsor of the measure that provides for a county government investigation and possible Shelby County General Sessions Court proceedings on complaints of wage theft, moved for the delay as he seeks to build public support for the measure.

The ordinance has drawn criticism from the local hospitality industry and others concerned that the procedures could be a burden, especially on small businesses.

Mulroy had offered amendments to ease those concerns during committee sessions last week, but they were voted down in committee.

Third and final reading of the ordinance is now scheduled for the commission’s Jan. 14 meeting, the first of 2013.

Also at the last commission meeting of 2012, commissioners approved a resolution to hire their own lobbyist for the coming session of the Tennessee Legislature. Commissioner Terry Roland sponsored the measure.

The commission voted down on third and final reading an ordinance offered by Ritz that would have set a rule for county government-funded parties, similar events and gifts that are given to and for employees. Ritz has tried before unsuccessfully to set guidelines that would make it more difficult for county elected officials to use their taxpayer-funded budgets for the gifts and parties.

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