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VOL. 127 | NO. 5 | Monday, January 9, 2012

Planning Commission Asks for Public Input

By Bill Dries

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The schools consolidation planning commission goes on the road Tuesday, Jan. 10, with the first public hearings by the group that will soon begin drafting the plan for operating a single Shelby County public school system.

The two-hour meeting to gather public input at 7 p.m. at Collierville United Methodist Church, 454 W. Poplar Ave., will be followed by numerous other meetings including four being planned in different parts of the county at the same time on the evening of Jan. 17.

The planning commission discussed a detailed plan for conducting the set of hearings at its weekly Thursday session. The commission and its consultant, Boston Consulting Group, want the hearings to field public input – positive, negative and in between – without any attempts by the planning commission to resolve what are expected to be conflicting opinions on the issue.

The Collierville meeting is in a geographic area in which opposition to the school merger has been vocal. Collierville city leaders are among suburban leaders who are considering creating some kind of suburban school system separate from the merged school system.

The merged school system begins operation at the start of the 2013-2014 school year. The planning commission is scheduled to have a plan for how the consolidated system will operate by August of this year for the approval of the countywide school board and state education officials.

Planning commissioners also reviewed a PowerPoint presentation that will answer some, but probably not most, of the questions the public might have along with the comments.

Commissioner Kenya Bradshaw, who is heading the public outreach and communication efforts, said it is important for the information at the dozens of meetings that are being planned to be consistent.

The information explains the role of the planning commission and the role of the countywide school board. It will also include a set of guiding principles the commission is using in planning the new merged school system.

The list is topped with the statement that the “academic success and well being of our students comes first.”

The statement was originally that students come first. But that was changed to be more specific.

Another change in the guiding principles was to a statement that originally read the commission would emphasize stability unless change was needed.

That was changed to a principle of “balancing stability with needed change.”

The general statements are about all the commission has to present to the public at this point. No decisions have been made on the specific structure and workings of the merged school system to come.

As they are made, the commission plans to outline those recommendations at future hearings.

Planning Commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott acknowledged there is confusion and some citizens might think the planning commission and countywide school board are the same. But there was some question about how far to go in explaining the role of the other players in the merger process.

For instance, explaining how the current 23-member countywide school board will transition to seven members by September 2013 after elections for those seven seats in August 2012 is complex enough. But some wanted to explain that the Shelby County Commission might consider expanding the slimmed down seven-member board to a 13-member board.

“What scares me about this is it’s so confusing,” Prescott said.

“There are so many questions about that,” added commissioner Daniel Kiel. “Who will answer?”

The committee was unanimous in limiting each person commenting or asking a question at the hearings to two minutes with no one being allowed to delegate their two minutes to someone else.

The commission hopes to hire a public relations firm at its Thursday, Jan. 12, meeting. The firm’s job description will include developing a website separate from the page on Shelby County government’s website that the group is now using.

The public sessions will include directing citizens to the existing and planned websites where they can comment using social media at any time of the day and listen to audio of commission meetings as well as review documents and presentations.

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