School Board Delays School Closing Decision, Green Lights Other Merger Moves

By Bill Dries

Countywide school board members didn’t get to a decision Thursday, Nov. 15, on the schools merger recommendation to close 20 schools in Memphis.

But at a special meeting Thursday evening, they approved a group of 29 other recommendations from the consolidation planning commission on a variety of schools operations fronts.

A bundle of 40 recommendations out of a total of 172 made by the planning commission were all color coded green. The green designation means the staffs of the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools had reviewed those recommendations and were far enough along to consider including them in a tentative budget for the first fiscal year of the merged school system which begins July 1, 2013.

The board decisions won’t be considered final until the board approves the budget for that first fiscal year. Still to come before that vote is a more precise fiscal note on how each item will impact the budget in terms of expense or savings.

Some of the recommendations approved are aspirational. Those recommendations set broad goals or state purposes the merged school system will pursue. Others are a common pursuit already present in both schools systems.

Along the way, the school board members discussed and debated such broad issues as the connection between the merged school system and charter schools and the state’s Achievement School District.

There was a lively discussion about which school construction projects should get priority – new schools or renovations and maintenance to older schools.

And the board previewed what is sure to be a detailed discussion to come later on the green recommendation to increase access to advanced placement courses with a goal of access to them by all students. At least in the beginning, some of that access would come through computer hook-ups to a single classroom for students in several schools. That prompted a discussion about which schools would get access to an advanced placement teacher in a classroom.

Still another recommendation approved by the board Thursday was to approve an office of transportation to run the transportation needs of the merged system on a day-to-day basis. School staffers told board members such an office will be needed whether the board decides to run its own buses or outsource the service to a private company. The size of the staff for that office would depend on which option the board picks in what is expected to be one of the three most controversial and debated recommendations from the planning commission.

The commission recommended outsourcing bus services as well as custodial services in school buildings. Both of the outsourcing recommendation are color coded yellow, meaning school systems staff are still weighing them but are close to a position for the board to consider. Red items are items that the school systems staffs are working through “major challenges” on, according to Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

The third controversial item is the one to close 21 schools: six in northwest Memphis – three elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools and 15 in southwest Memphis – seven elementary, six middle and two high schools.

That recommendation is among the green recommendations. The board will take it up after its work session Tuesday, Nov. 20, with lots of debate expected. There were 10 other “green” items the board did not get to at Thursday’s session.

The board approved other non-controversial recommendations at a September meeting on which there was broad agreement. Those are color-coded blue.