Schools Merger Begins Move Into Parental Reality

By Bill Dries

Countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel noticed lots of parents of school children from the county outside of Memphis at the annual camp-out for optional school enrollment over the long weekend.

“Everybody got to enjoy being outside for four days,” Orgel said of what is a new experience for some parents as Shelby County’s two school systems merge. The optional schools enrollment process is the first part of the coming consolidation that parents are dealing with.

Next month there will be the open enrollment process for available spaces at what are now separate city and county schools.

At its voting meeting Jan. 29, the school board will suspend its rules to give final approval to the new policy for open enrollment across both systems to have the rules set for parents in time for the February process.

At the Tuesday, Jan. 22, board work session, board members got their first look at a calendar for the first school year of the merger.

The first day of classes for the merged school district would be Aug. 5 with teachers returning to work on July 29.

“We are trying to keep everything as close as possible to the calendar both school systems have this year,” said Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

School board member Diane George questioned whether students shouldn’t have to attend special programs instead of getting the day off for Presidents Day and Veterans Day.

“Do our students really know all the presidents?” she asked.

Orgel said his daughter learned a song at Grahamwood Elementary that helped her learn the names of all the presidents.

“She’s in the 12th grade and still knows it,” he said.

School board member Joe Clayton objected to using the term “winter break” instead of “Christmas break” on the calendar. “Christmas break” is the term used on the county school system’s calendar and Clayton said he would vote against the calendar next week unless that wording remains.

The board also got its first look at a budget process unlike the one used in past years by either school board.

For the first year of the merger, the two school systems would approve a preliminary and very general merger budget on Feb. 12 and present it to the Shelby County Commission on Feb. 20 for discussion at a commission budget retreat on Feb. 23.

The commission is the sole local funder of the consolidated school system.

“Everybody knows we’ve got a tremendous shortfall in revenues that we’ve had to wrestle with,” said Tim Setterlund, assistant county schools superintendent and head of the transition steering committee working on merger details.

“It will not have the level of details you usually have,” he said of the February budget. “It is a large picture general budget – not that it isn’t well thought out.”

The board members get their first look Jan. 30 at the preliminary budget.

But school board member Martavius Jones questioned whether the school board might get locked into the preliminary numbers at a point when it still will have some key merger recommendations to approve.

“One of the main responsibilities of the board is to approve the budget,” he said. “I think we would be derelict in approving a top line budget with no details. Our main job, what we are elected to do, is to approve that budget.”

Jones also said neither school system has received any additional local funding in six years.

“If we need to make an educated ask … we need to be armed with adequate information to take back to our community,” he said.

The school board would present a specific budget request for formal approval by the commission during the regular spring budget season for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz have each said they expect a gap between revenues and expenditures for the merged school system of at least $57 million, possibly more.

Luttrell, in a state of the county address this month, said a county property tax hike of some kind is likely to cover that gap as well as added expenses to the county in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over conditions in Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court.