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VOL. 127 | NO. 128 | Monday, July 2, 2012

Schools Merger Draft Receives Different Responses

By Bill Dries

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The plan for a consolidated countywide public school system got overshadowed last week by the federal court motion to stop the August referendums on municipal school districts.

But the 200-page plan with 172 recommendations is now formally before the countywide school board and Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman – the two next stops in the process for approving a merger plan.

The school board and Huffman differed in their initial reactions to the plan last week after presentations by the schools consolidation planning commission, the appointed group that put together the first draft of a blueprint for the transition to and operation of the consolidated school system.

“I am not going to be rushed. I have waited for the plan. … I’m not going to be pressured by anyone’s fake and false timeline,” said school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. “I’ll be looking for things that have to do with the merger, not the aspirational, the hopes, the policy decisions.”

Huffman, who got his presentation two days later, reserved judgment on specific provisions.

“I feel like you did the impossible,” he said of the tight timeline the group of 21 worked under. “I’m very optimistic about the future of the merged system.”

Huffman then talked about the role the school board plays in passing judgment on a plan that has a $57 million gap between revenues and expenses.

“The budget builds in assumptions that are based on courageous actions by the board,” he said. “It’s duly noted that even to get to a place where the gap is $57 million will require the school board to make some courageous, political hard decisions around things like closing schools and changing the compensation structure and outsourcing certain pieces of the budget. … I know that what lies ahead is not going to be easy for the board.”

Courageous wasn’t a word anyone on the school board used in their initial impressions about the part of the plan that recommends closing 21 schools to “right size” the district and get all or most students into schools operating at 85 percent of their capacity.

“Although it looks good on paper, it doesn’t look good in terms of what it does to the economics of the city,” said school board member Jeff Warren.

He and other school board members say Memphis City Schools staff has numbers that dispute the $20 million savings the planning commission anticipates from the school closings.

Warren also suggested adding a “moratorium” on any new charter schools in the first years of the merger because of the expense to the system.

“If you can include that, it will give us some political cover,” he told those on the planning commission.

Huffman asked some questions about the plan’s call for pre-kindergarten access for all children in Shelby County. The plan would build the access over five years at a rate of 25 new classrooms a year. It would also standardize the criteria for pre-K classes across the school system and other providers of pre-K including the Head Start program.

“Who doesn’t want pre-K? We wanted pre-K before the merger,” Whalum said. “We needed it then and we’ll need it after whatever happens.”

Huffman also expressed an interest in the details of the move to a pay structure for teachers that will move away from seniority and higher education degrees to performance standards for teachers that include how well students are performing.

“There are a number of systems in the state now that have alternative salary schedules. There are other systems that have moved off of the state salary schedules,” Huffman said after the session. “I don’t know why a unified Shelby County system would be using the same salary schedule for state pay as a small rural county in a different part of the state. It’s unusual for a state to be as heavy-handed as Tennessee is when it comes to salary schedules.”

Planning commissioner Chris Richards repeated the group’s reading of the state law governing the schools consolidation – that the law’s requirement not to reduce teacher pay and benefits does not mean a leveling up of pay.

The planning commission found a $300 gap between the average annual pay for Memphis City Schools teachers and Shelby County Schools teachers favoring MCS teachers. It also found that SCS principals make at least $10,000 more a year on average than their MCS counterparts.

The group recommends an evening out of salaries in the third year of the merger. That is a specific recommendation Huffman would have to pass judgment on if it is approved by the countywide school board.

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