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VOL. 127 | NO. 118 | Monday, June 18, 2012

More Work Follows Schools Plan Approval

By Bill Dries

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The plan for a consolidated countywide public school system isn’t finished just yet despite last week’s vote by the schools consolidation planning commission.


What was already a complex and unprecedented process gets more complex and involves more people going forward in addition to the 21-member planning commission.


Planning commissioner Staley Cates goes to Nashville Wednesday, June 20, to meet with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. It’s the first in a series of calls individual planning commissioners plan to make seeking more funding and assistance for a plan that has just under $60 million of red ink – the gap between existing revenues and the expenses of the new school system.

The countywide school board gets a formal briefing on the plan June 26 and state education officials get their briefing two days later. Both must approve the plan before it becomes the structure of the new school system.

“Surviving intact – I think that’s going to be a very difficult task,” said planning commissioner Martavius Jones who is also a school board member. “However, I think a majority of the recommendations of the (planning commission) will be accepted (by the school board).”

Fellow school board member and planning commissioner David Pickler described the first draft as “a plan that not every one loved every element of but we understood that this was the best chance to achieve what we hope we can reach … a truly excellent and world-class school system.”

The part of the plan that will call for some “tough” decisions by the board, Pickler and others added, involves the financing – bridging the gap between revenues and expenses.

The planning commission approved several options the school board could use to deal with the estimated $57 million in red ink including asking Shelby County Commissioners and/or the Memphis City Council for more funding – most likely through a property tax increase.

But the options also include a “reluctant contingency” list of budget cuts that would include increasing class sizes and cutting the number of assistant principals, school staff and some teachers.

“I fully expect the board is going to very carefully vet every element of the plan,” Pickler said. “There’s nothing that says that the board will vote this plan up or down in one single vote. My expectation is over the next several weeks that the board will look at every single element.”

As school board members, Pickler and Jones will each have a vote on the plan they helped to craft.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who is on the planning commission, also has a dual role.

The countywide school board will eventually come up with a budget to run the new merged school system for its first year, the 2013-2014 school year. And the budget will go to the Shelby County Commission for funding with Luttrell making a recommendation to the commission in his role as mayor.

“Then I get involved again,” is the way Luttrell put it last week.

“To get it approved at the school board level is going to take a great deal of soul searching and political resolve. There are some tough, tough decisions,” Luttrell said. “I’m going to make it very clear. I hope they will look very seriously at the plan so (the administration) can work closely with them when they submit their budget.”

Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott envisions a lot of collaboration between now and late July when the approvals from the school board and state education officials are due. She said some part of the plan could be sent back to the planning commission by the school board.

“I suppose they could do that. We are hoping they will approve this plan,” she said. “They may call out some items that they do not feel they can follow. We really do not know. There is no rule book on this at all.”

There are also some decisions still to come completely outside the merger process, namely the soon to come August referendums in the county’s six suburban towns and cities on forming separate municipal school districts.

A preliminary estimate by Boston Consulting Group, the consultants to the planning commission, is that the municipal school districts could result in a shift of up to 34,000 students depending on attendance zones for them with a loss of $250 million in revenue to the consolidated school system.

But the consolidated school system could recover most of that through revenue it earns from agreements to use existing school buildings in the suburban towns and cities or services like transportation and food that the consolidated school system might contract with the municipal school boards to provide.

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