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VOL. 127 | NO. 24 | Monday, February 6, 2012

Consolidation Talks Merge With Municipal Plans

By Bill Dries

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At the outset, members of the schools consolidation transition planning commission set out some basic ground rules for the set of public hearings they began in late January.

They wouldn’t answer questions about details of a merged school system that hadn’t been worked out yet. They would listen and they wouldn’t deal with items that weren’t part of what they are required to do by law – come up with a blueprint for a single countywide public school system.

They held their first public hearing in Collierville about a week before leaders of that city and four other suburban communities got reports from their consultants about forming a set of suburban municipal school districts.

Two weeks after the reports were released, bills were introduced by suburban Shelby County legislators in Nashville to require that any school buildings in the footprint of a municipal school district must be given to the municipal school district at no cost.

That was followed by two more bills, including one to remove unincorporated Grays Creeks from the city of Memphis annexation reserve area.

It’s a key piece of real estate to the formation of municipal school districts and an area where the verdict of parents is essential to acceptance of a consolidated school system.

Several of the suburban towns and cities are preparing for votes by their boards of aldermen this month to set a May referendum on the municipal school district question.

The schools consolidation effort, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell warned last week, was losing the battle for public consideration of its plan before there is a plan.

Some on the planning commission are saying their work has been preempted by the move toward May referenda in the suburbs. And the timing is critical for their work.

In two weeks, the first of their committees will make recommendations on a basic structure for the merged school system. A decision on how the new school system will be structured is the framework for the rest of the recommendations to come on curriculum and school services like transportation and school lunches.

Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott said the recommendation will probably be several options for the administrative structure with lots of debate expected among the 21-member group.

“We believe that by the end of February, perhaps the first of March, we will have our first recommendation,” she said.

Luttrell says the group is doing good work. But most of its members aren’t politicians, and Luttrell considers that his role in the group.

“You can create the best product in the world, but if you can’t sell it to the community, it’s of no value,” he said after Thursday’s planning commission session. “This committee is doing some good work. But we’re not doing a very good job of bringing the community into the process and making the community feel comfortable with what we’re doing.”

He wants the commission and the suburban mayors to talk about what hasn’t been talked about at the public hearings – the municipal schools plans.

“We need to listen to the suburban mayors … and to see where we have common ground and see where we can complement each other,” he said. “I don’t know if we can. But let’s see if we can.”

Prescott acknowledges the necessity of the discussion.

“Obviously, we can’t put our head in the sand. We know there’s a lot going on,” she said before pointing out that her group delivers its plan for the merged school district this August – a full year before the actual merger of the two school systems. That’s been the timeline since before the commission was appointed.

“We have a very aggressive timeline,” she said. “We think it should be plenty of time for the public to understand – a whole year before the merger – what they might want to do.”

Luttrell’s fear is the public’s verdict may be in before then.

Several of the suburban mayors have said there is a possibility the smaller school districts they have championed could coexist in a larger merged school system. But the issue is what kind of autonomy there could realistically be in those smaller school systems within a big system.

Some kind of cooperative agreements among a set of municipal school districts is a part of the scenario outlined among the five reports released so far by the consulting firm Southern Educational Consultants LLC. The reports also mention similar contracts with the countywide school system possibly to provide services like transportation, building maintenance and even school lunches.

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