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VOL. 6 | NO. 8 | Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hart To Explore Schools Merger Delay

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board member Tomeka Hart will offer a resolution at a school board meeting Monday, Feb. 18 that could call for a one year delay in the scheduled July 1 merger of the city and county school systems.

Hart was one of the first political figures in Memphis to call for a merger of the county’s two public school systems.

It is not clear if such a resolution, if advanced by Hart and approved by the 23-member board, could stop the consolidation.

The merger date was part of a ruling and settlement among all parties in the Memphis Federal Court lawsuit filed by the Shelby County Board of Education contesting the merger itself. The settlement was agreed to by all sides including Memphis City Schools officials and then accepted by Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays.

The board set the start of the merger for July 1 because that is the start of the fiscal year. The school year begins Aug. 5 with the first day of classes.

The settlement set the terms for the merger and the case then moved to a challenge by the Shelby County Commission of the parts of the state laws governing schools consolidation that allowed suburban leaders to form municipal school districts.

If one party backs out of the agreement it could conceivably revive at least that part of the court case.

The move comes as Memphis city government leaders are anxiously anticipating an end to city funding of Memphis City Schools after two state courts ruled the city could not cut its level of funding under state “maintenance of effort” laws.

Word of Hart’s resolution surfaced Friday afternoon after a recording of the WKNO TV program “Behind The Headlines” with school board chairman Billy Orgel and fellow school board member David Reaves.

During the half hour interview program hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, Hart made no mention of a move to delay the schools merger.

“My issue really wasn’t that we needed to be one big school system,” she said at the outset when asked about state legislation introduced Thursday in Nashville to provide another path for suburban leaders to municipal school districts. “The issue was we needed an intact county school system to protect funding for countywide education including those children in Memphis City Schools.”

She and Orgel and Reaves then talked of the need for a better long term plan for a combined system and possibly a phased-in merger plan over several years.

“We have so many schools and so many are under utilized,” Reaves began as he talked about the “urban education model” in city schools. “And over the years, we’ve not been able to get to the point where we have larger schools full of more children adding more educational programs. That is an expensive model that is not sustainable as well.”

Orgel then said the change isn’t as simple as closing 21 under-utilized schools all at once as was recommended to the school board by the transition planning commission last year.

“Instead of just putting a number on it and a dollar figure and then working your way toward it, I’d like to look at the communities where the schools are located – figure out how the feeder pattern looks, if the elementary schools are not feeding the middle and high schools,” Orgel said. “The county has a good model on this because the population is spread out and you have a central high school. If we’ve got seven or eight high schools in southeast and southwest Shelby County and they are under utilized … let’s put a facility centrally located that can be a larger high school.”

Hart agreed with the need for a comprehensive reconfiguration of schools across what are now two separate school systems.

“That’s not what we are doing,” she said. “Just to say close 21 schools – how does that fit into the bigger plan of the community? What really should it look like. I really believe we need to completely redesign these communities.”

Orgel conceded that would take time and he and Reaves said it would mean paying more in capital costs which are funded through bonds and not general fund revenue to the school system from the property and sales tax rates.

“It’s actually probably more efficient and better for our children in the long run than to do it the way we are doing it,” he said. “It needs to be thoughtful. It doesn’t need to be us sitting in a board meeting and taking a pen and scratching through this one and playing games with people’s lives.”

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