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VOL. 127 | NO. 89 | Monday, May 7, 2012

Planning Commission Moves Forward On Schools Merger

By Bill Dries

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The schools consolidation planning commission is getting close enough to its goal of a plan for the merged school system that some members are now weighing how much political headroom to give the countywide school board.

The school board and state education officials have the final say on whatever plan the commission comes up with for the August 2013 merger.

Last week the commission gave preliminary approval to 32 recommendations from its educational services committee.

That included an endorsement of the philosophy of intervening with students who are not making sufficient progress during the course of a school year, continuing optional schools programs in general and setting some kind of standard for the number of advanced placement courses available in all schools.

But planning commissioners also sent some of the recommendations back to the committee for more specifics such as the number of AP courses.

“I know this will sound cynical but we have easy outs on not doing a lot of this stuff,” said planning commissioner Staley Cates. “They could just say, ‘Well, we’re already doing this.’ … If they don’t want to do this, which I hope won’t be the case, it will be really easy to blow it off.”

The recommendations also include a goal of universal pre-kindergarten access that would involve a mix of existing school district pre-K programs with private pre-K programs and Head Start programs in the county. The planning commission is recommending the school system set a “single standard” for pre-K readiness.

The commission also gave preliminary approval last week to recommendations that the merged school system outsource custodial work at schools as well as bus transportation for students to private companies.

The votes by the panel Thursday, May 3, were preliminary but with most of the 21 members there and all but two to three voting for the recommendation, it is an important indicator.

Richard Holden, the former chief of operations for the Shelby County Schools system and head of the logistics committee making the recommendation, said the custodial outsourcing and cutting back to one school engineer for every two schools could save $22 million to $25 million a year.

Outsourcing the transportation of students by bus, as the county school system currently does, would also involve selling the existing fleet of buses owned by the city school system to the contractor. And the committee recommended three school start and dismissal times so drivers could make multiple trips and fewer buses would be needed.

Planning commissioner and countywide school board member Martavius Jones objected to both recommendations, citing the job losses.

“We would be impacting … largely people who live in Memphis and Shelby County,” he said of the custodial jobs.

Jones also said city and county leaders should consider tax freeze incentives for economic development that require businesses getting other breaks to still pay the full tax rate that goes for education.

Planning commissioner Fred Johnson, a former county school board member, said the changeover would probably mean jobs with no health benefits for employees who make the transition.

“In the scheme of things, it’s not very much,” he said of the savings. “I feel strongly about people losing full-time jobs with benefits.”

But planning commissioner and former Shelby County Commissioner Tommy Hart said the recommendations are among the tough choices those on the body have to make.

“The choice comes down to whether we’re an employment agency or whether we’re an education agency,” Hart said. “Are we going to be in education or are we going to be in the employment business?”

“I’m trying to look long range,” Johnson countered. “I’m looking at incarceration rates in this community that are deplorable. The crime rate is deplorable and these are the kinds of things that contribute to it over the long haul.”

Other critics of the recommendation said some of those who lose their jobs might never work again.

“It sucks either way,” Cates said, adding the choice was about whether to put more of the money for public education in the classroom instead of other areas.

He also asked about the possibility of voluntary buyouts “since it seems as if we think they are totally screwed forever and most likely on their way to prison.”

The latter part of the thought was a reference to comments by Johnson and other critics of the outsourcing.

“If this is this divisive here, then on the school board it will be worse,” Cates added on a more serious note, referring to the decision to come by the countywide school board on whatever blueprint the planning commission recommends.

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