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VOL. 127 | NO. 39 | Monday, February 27, 2012

Planning Group Hears of Structure Proposal

By Bill Dries

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Next school year, a group of 112 schools in the separate Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools systems will operate outside the framework used by each of the school systems for governing their other schools.


That is 112 of 270 schools total in both systems.

The group drafting the blueprint for the structure of a consolidated countywide public school system is about to make its first decision on the structure of a countywide school system.

The choice of a governing structure is a skeleton the planning commission will then be able to flesh out.

But the presence of schools already with some form of autonomy suggests that is already happening. The 112 schools that range from charter schools to innovation schools and achievement school district schools will continue to operate as they are no matter what structure is adopted.

Between now and the transition planning commission’s next meeting on Thursday, March 1, those in the group of 21 will look over the specifics of options. Those include a centralized countywide school system with six subregions, and a decentralized system with subregions that would feature “a path to autonomy” for groupings of charter-like schools. Those charter-like schools would work under performance-based contracts with the countywide school system.

The decision will be the first toward a consolidated school system structure. With the issue decided, the planning commission would begin taking other steps toward a goal of sending a completed plan for a consolidated school system to the countywide school board and state education officials for approval in August.

The two school systems are scheduled to merge based on that plan a year later, at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

Planning commissioner Staley Cates, one of several on the body who come from a business background, urged the group to look broader than the education “bubble” on the issue of control.

“This path to autonomy we are following is nothing new and it is nothing unproven. But it’s where most really high-performing organizations have ended up,” he said. “I would not only evaluate them both. … I would think about most companies have kind of discarded all-central power.”

Commission member and countywide school board member Martavius Jones argued the existing school systems already have paths to autonomy through charter school applications. The conversation among several planning commission members spilled over after the adjournment of last week’s meeting and will probably surface this week.

The path for charter schools was blocked late last year when one of the first decisions by the countywide school board was to reject more than a dozen charter school applications in the city and county school systems saying their numbers would pose a financial hardship on each school system. A decision from the state treasurer’s office on the appeal of the financial hardship rejection is still pending.

Jones also said curriculum already varies from school to school. The charter-like schools or groups of schools provided for in the recommendation would control their curriculum instead of the curriculum being guided by a central school system administration.

Planning commissioner Tommy Hart, however, countered that curriculum doesn’t change from one school or another in either of Shelby County’s two existing public school systems. Hart said the difference is in leadership of the schools through principals.

That leadership and the selection of principals becomes more crucial with a consolidated school system that is decentralized.

Some planning commissioners are already indicating they don’t see the models as something to choose between.

“I’d be looking at some combination. Not one or the other,” said Richard Holden, a retired Shelby County Schools system administrator.

The idea was echoed by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

“I think the discussion all along has been a blend of the two,” he said.

Meanwhile, Arlington’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen made the town the first of the six suburban municipalities to give final approval last week to a May 10 referendum on forming a municipal school district.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, who is on the planning commission, said his city’s push for a municipal school district continues at least for now.

“Plan A for Bartlett is still independent municipal school districts. Plan B would be something like the path to autonomy – something similar to that, whether it’s a charter school system or something else,” he said. “Our citizens have made it very clear they want and expect the referendum to create their own independent school system.”

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