Debate Continues on Merger Plan

By Bill Dries

When countywide school board members meet Tuesday, July 31, they will have a final plan for the merger of the two public school systems in Shelby County that looks a lot like the tentative plan they got last month.


But there will be some debate on the board about something else – how to approve the merger plan.


School board member Freda Williams, chairman of the ad hoc committee guiding the board through its examination of the merger plan from the consolidation planning commission, wants more public hearings on it. And her move to set up those public hearings got delayed when the board scrapped a special meeting earlier this month.

“The idea is to have some community input from our constituents so that we can make sure that their voices are heard,” she said.

Last week, she told board members that her committee’s work was at an end without those public meetings scheduled.

“There had been no formal opportunity for parents to offer input. And we did not want to move ahead with the July 16 special called meeting without that input from parents,” Williams said later.

But the planning commission held public hearings after approving a first draft of a merger plan in June. And what they heard at those sessions, including two full-day workshops with school board members and school system staff earlier this month, figured prominently in the changes the planning commission considered last week. It was the planning commission’s last meeting as a group unless the school board changes the merger plan and sends it back to the commission for revision.

Williams wants to stick with the other plan – the one for holding additional public hearings on the merger plan. But other board members, including David Pickler, argue that the full board may have to bypass the committee and its schedule, which included as its first step the board receiving the merger blueprint and all members getting copies of it.

“The clock is running. In only slightly more than a year we’re going to have to open up this new merged school system,” Pickler said Friday, July 27, on the WKNO TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“This board’s got to get on the stick. The time is running. My hope is that we will have a vote at least by the end of September. But I’ve got to say right now, I’m not optimistic.”

Williams wants to stick with the earlier plan, which could mean a vote Tuesday on the plan for moving ahead but not a vote on the merger plan itself until the end of August at the earliest.

“We had a full board approval of that plan,” Williams said of how the board would consider the merger plan.

Pickler expressed doubts that the board will get to a vote at the end of August as things stand now.

Planning commission leaders including Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell stressed that the merger plan should be approved and its transition office up and running at least a year from the August 2013 start of the merger.

And Luttrell told Shelby County Commissioners he will be watching whatever the board does with the merger plan.

“I’m going to be looking at how seriously they took the recommendations,” he said as he talked about the $57 million gap between revenues and expenses in the merger plan. That gap could become bigger if the school board rejects items like closing up to 20 underutilized schools in one year and outsourcing building custodians as well as school transportation.

“If I’m convinced that they embraced it – that they had the political will to make the tough decisions then we can see what the hole is,” Luttrell said, adding that he hasn’t decided whether the county’s options for providing more revenue could be a county sales tax hike, a county property tax hike or some other means of finding more revenue.

And Luttrell continued to insist the board should pick one superintendent to start the transition as soon as possible. Luttrell is working specifically on the cost of maintaining school security services post merger and said last week he needs decisions at the superintendent level about those services that he can’t get now while there are two heads of two school systems.

Planning commissioner and countywide school board member Martavius Jones suggested consulting with the security chiefs of the two school systems.

“You’ve pointed out precisely why we need a superintendent,” Luttrell said. “If you’ll get a superintendent appointed, we’ll get this resolved.”

“We have two, Mr. Mayor,” Jones responded.

“We need one,” Luttrell replied.