As suburban mayors were scheduled to meet this week to talk over their options, the consolidation of all public schools in Shelby County that begins in August began to show signs of a shift.
The shift might be to take at least some of the decisions about the schools merger out of the hands of just the countywide school board or to junk the process the board is using. The mayors of the six towns and cities have all indicated they intend to push on for their own school districts, although several have said it is highly unlikely they could form them and open them for classes by August.
That means they are in the merged school district for at least the first year.
And it is that realization that has accelerated what was already concern in some quarters about the school board’s lingering pace on making major merger decisions.
Three days after U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays voided the suburban moves toward forming their own school districts, state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, sent a letter to local elected leaders suggesting the debate is becoming too political.
“It is time for those of us in the position to make decisions to stop thinking in political terms and start thinking in educational terms,” Kyle wrote in the letter he made public Monday, Dec. 3.
Kyle called for Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to “potentially be an independent broker between the various parties.”
Kyle, who is the Senate minority leader, said he talked with state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville about the idea and, according to Kyle, Norris agrees as well as Huffman.
“We must take the lessons we’ve learned in the last two years and use them as a metric of how to proceed,” Kyle wrote. “We have seen what happens when we divide on ideology; it is unproductive. The political dynamics are what brought us to this point and will drive us back if we do not choose to act differently.”
In the last two-year legislative session, Kyle and other Memphis Democrats in both chambers have been decidedly passive as Shelby County Republicans, led by Norris, passed two sets of laws governing the formation of municipal school districts.
The Memphis Democrats in the Shelby County delegation voted against the measures and made a few remarks during debate about the state imposing its will on Memphis or treating Memphis differently. But it was Democratic legislators outside Memphis who directly and vocally attacked the specific idea of separate school districts for the suburbs.
Huffman was appointed state education commissioner after the Shelby County Board of Education filed the federal lawsuit contesting the schools merger, which then became a lawsuit by the Shelby County Commission contesting the formation of municipal school districts.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Shelby County Commission chairman Mark Luttrell parted company on a 1-cent sales tax hike question on the November ballot to create an additional $30 million in education funding. Voters defeated it. Luttrell opposed it and Ritz was a key political force behind its move to the ballot.
But the top two leaders of Shelby County government, which will be the sole source of local funding for the merged school system, have been vocal that the school board isn’t making merger decisions quickly enough.
Some on the school board have insisted the decisions are theirs to make on whatever time schedule they choose.
The schools consolidation planning commission recommended the school board pick a single superintendent to lead into and beyond the August schools merger date no later than the end of the fall. The school board has adopted a timetable that would end with the hiring of a superintendent in mid-February.
And last week the school board moved on the issue of 21 school closings recommended by the planning commission by instead moving toward the closing or transition of six schools with a set of public hearings and impact studies that will move the actual vote on the school closings to March.
The board was acting on the recommendation of a transition steering committee – a set of administrators from both school systems who are reviewing the planning commission recommendations.
Board chairman Billy Orgel warned that he and other board members may “have to take over the process.”
“If you guys don’t go back and look at items that can save money, I don’t know that this board can continue to let the (steering committee) continue to do this,” Orgel said. “What we did tonight is a step and it’s a continuing step, but there is no money out there in the community to fund education.”