Once the winners are certified in the six sets of suburban school board races on Tuesday’s ballot in Shelby County, the first order of business for all of the boards will be selecting superintendents to run the six fledgling school systems.
“The two highest priority tasks are to hire a superintendent and to gain access to buildings,” said Germantown school board member-elect Ken Hoover.
Hoover is running unopposed in the election for a seat on the Germantown school board.
He and countywide school board member Chris Caldwell were on the recent WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, and a Web-only continuation of the discussion can be seen on The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.
The elections of the six suburban school boards as well as the existence of their school districts hinge on a ruling to come from Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on whether the state laws creating the municipal school districts are constitutional.
Hoover said the school boards should be sworn in on or by Dec. 1 and move ahead unless or until Mays rules they have to stop.
“And then we’ve got some major tasks to tackle quickly,” he said.
The six city governments in the suburbs have each hired Southern Educational Strategies LLC to help with their searches for superintendents. It’s part of the “leg work” the city governments have undertaken in advance of the school boards being seated.
“They’ve explored office space that we can lease on a temporary basis to serve as a central office,” Hoover said. “They’ve made arrangements for some search activity – the idea being that on Dec. 1 when we are sworn in, we will have a list of qualified candidates that we can immediately begin interviewing.”
That would put the superintendent hiring process in the suburbs ahead of the goal of the countywide school system, which has set a target date in mid-February for hiring the superintendent who will guide the larger school system up to and through the August merger date.
“The first responsibility we have is to make sure there is a school district in place, teachers in the classrooms so we can accommodate the entire district,” Caldwell said of the possibility of a merged school system without the suburban towns and cities. “If we make those plans and the municipalities get their districts, I think that’s an easier scenario to change.”
Hoover and Caldwell each agreed that the negotiations over school buildings in the suburban cities will be complex with some difficult questions to resolve.
”What happens if the cost and expense of running a municipal school district is much greater than they anticipated and they give up? What do we do?” Caldwell asked. “Do they hand the buildings back to us? Or say they are successful and it displaces kids from the unincorporated area? Almost half the kids who go to school in Germantown don’t reside there. So you push the kids out? It could be anywhere from $300 million to $600 million of new building construction.”
“I don’t foresee that,” Hoover replied. “The only thing we’ve ever asked for is the eight buildings that are in Germantown and all the kids that currently go there.”
That includes students who don’t live within the Germantown city limits but attend schools there.
“The student population within Shelby County has been shifting fairly dramatically for 40 years and at a reasonably steady pace over that whole period of time,” Hoover added. “We’ve built literally dozens of new schools in the suburbs and in the city and yet our public school student population is roughly the same as it was in 1973. It’s not a new problem.”
The countywide school board has some decisions about buildings to make on another front – the recommendation from the consolidation planning commission to close 20 schools pre-merger. It is expected to be one of the most widely discussed parts of the merger transition by the countywide school board.
“Until you know exactly which schools are closed, where the kids are going, what the programmatic capacity of the schools where they are going are, you don’t really know what the savings are,” Caldwell said.
He cited the recent closing of Georgia Avenue Elementary School, which cost the school system $275,000 extra to transport the children from that school to their new school.
“To make an assumption that closing 20 schools translates to $20 million is just a guesstimate,” Caldwell added. “I think we’re all committed to getting to the bottom line. But you can’t just go blindly and say yes, yes, yes. … We’re the ones that are going to have to answer for that.”