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VOL. 127 | NO. 146 | Friday, July 27, 2012

Planning Commission Makes Adjustments To Schools Merger Plan

By Bill Dries

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The group that drafted the blueprint for the consolidation of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools met Thursday, July 26, for what could be the final time to consider a few changes to their merger plan.

The schools consolidation planning commission approved some but not all of the suggested changes to the plan that came from feedback from the public including countywide school board members since last month.

The plan is now considered final and goes to the school board and Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman for approval. Huffman has already said he approves of the teacher pay and benefits provisions he is required to approve under state law.

Planning commissioners stressed that they would like to see school board approval no later than next month to give the transition process a full year to work before the merger date of August 2013.

The commission considered eight major changes to its plan.

The group changed its recommendation from closing 21 schools in the western part of Memphis to “at least 20 closures” and adjusted the estimated savings from the school closures from $21 million to $19 million to account for increased transportation costs.

Neither the additional cost nor any other changes or clarifications made Thursday increased the overall $57 million gap between revenues and expenses for the merged school system as estimated by the planning commission. There were several other adjustments that evened out in terms of additional revenues and expenses.

The planning commission rejected a call by some school board members to phase in the school closings over several years and to factor in the costs of maintaining 24-hour security for the closed buildings. Some school board members said those costs could wipe out any projected savings.

Any decision on school closings is a decision of the school board. The planning commission noted that other large school system have closed similar numbers of schools in a single year including the District of Columbia school system and Cleveland schools.

A majority on the planning commission said the cost of security at the buildings shouldn’t be factored into the expenses of the school system because the possible revenue to be made from selling the school buildings also wasn’t factored into revenues the school system would have.

Another suggestion to keep optional schools enrollment a “first come-first served” system was also rejected by the group. The MCS program now uses a mix of lottery placement and first come-first serve enrollment. The planning commission concluded keeping that or gradually phasing in the lottery system would either create a new inequity or preserve an old inequity when the goal should be to have more options for students in that program as well as in open enrollment and transfers.

And the planning commission voted to stick with several efforts at the same time to pursue more local and state funding to close the gap between expenses and revenues.

The decision was a reaction to a suggestion to prioritize the pursuit of more funding to start with the city, then go to the state and then the county.

A suggestion to add 10 positions to the school system’s central office for administrators to work exclusively on the transition to the merger was also rejected. The planning commission stuck with its recommendation of a transition process involving high ranking staff of both school systems who will work toward the merger as they also perform their daily duties in their respective school systems. Adding the positions would have come with an estimated increase in the funding gap of $6.4 million a year.

The changes also included a set of 14 “clarifying changes” that didn’t change the basic and general intent of the plan. They included a specific statement that “there will be no forced busing for desegregation purposes” in the merger and specifically saying the plan’s expansion of pre kindergarten would include students with special needs and that pre-k students would get the same kind of intervention approach to learning that older students would get.

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