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VOL. 128 | NO. 43 | Monday, March 4, 2013

The Path Forward for Schools


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“We’re making our community, by disagreement and discord, a very unattractive place to live, visit and locate businesses.”

When discussing the new unified Shelby County Schools this recent statement by Shelby County Schools Chairman Billy Orgel pretty much sums up the state of affairs.

I would like to paint a picture of what I think we need to do by Aug. 1, or what I propose we call Day 1. When we look back on 2013 and 2014 the next five months will be important to the success of Memphis and Shelby County.

Our immediate concern is how we handle the 2013-2014 budget and what amount of change we need to implement on Day 1. We need to minimize change. Families with children in the legacy SCS expect little or no change at individual schools.

We do not need to adjust class sizes, resolve salary disparities, and right size school administrative staffing on Day 1. For that reason, I support an increase in funding for one year with the explicit understanding that the seven-member school board we will inherit on Day 1 will make the necessary decisions.

At this point I recommend we settle in for a year of a merged system and begin looking ahead. We need to make sure that we avoid radical changes and those that are made need to be understood and communicated to the key constituents BEFORE they are final. Our leaders need to reassure everyone that there will be minimal changes on Day 1. The SCS board needs to get focused on the important tasks at hand. We need a single superintendent. We do not need to concern ourselves with the name of the district, the logo, and the stationary.

Day 1 is coming fast and we cannot afford to be bogged down by trivial matters. Our school board and the new superintendent need to embrace two distinct challenges. First, we need to focus on defining actions and activities that will result in improving our existing schools and teachers. The merger has been a distraction from the main business at hand – educating.

Our schools should be focused on specific outcomes and measurements. Principals need to be set free and we need to reduce the bureaucracy that is stifling creativity and inhibiting innovation. What is world class, how is it measured, and how do we get there from here?

Second, we need to address the reality of declining enrollment and formulate a strategy to “right size” the administration, underutilized facilities, and support services. We need to make difficult decisions that will result in the reduction of administrative staff. This isn’t easy and I have empathy for those individuals that will be impacted by this merger but the school district cannot continue to be a jobs program.

Many of these decisions will have to wait for Day 1 because the school board we have can’t make timely and effective decisions. I am hopeful the seven remaining members can work together and make the required decisions.

If it is truly “about the children” then we need to be pragmatic about budgetary constraints and where our resources need to be. The reality is there is more administrative spending in the legacy Memphis City Schools and we must address this painful truth.

The staff at the top of the MCS pyramid take home larger salaries and there are more of them. When it comes to efficiencies, the school board has only scratched the surface. We have twice as many schools per student in the legacy MCS system than the legacy Shelby County System. We need to reduce and consolidate schools.

Finally, there are several support functions that need to be spun off or re-engineered. We need bus drivers and custodians but they don’t necessarily need to be employees of the school district. Funding for 2013-2014 is going to be a challenge. Increased spending in an environment of declining enrollment is not sustainable and the request for an additional $145 million is unethical. The County Commission will not approve a 25 percent increase in property taxes. We need to find some innovative solutions to the budget crisis. The County Commission and Mayor Mark Luttrell will be working to maximize funding for the unified district.

While not expected, I would like to see the municipalities (including Memphis) and the state participate in funding the 2013-2014 budget.

I would like to see each municipality consider appropriating funds, which can be used to bridge the gap between what the county can afford and the dollars needed to minimize disruptions in the classrooms on Day 1.

The municipalities that voted in sales tax increases to help fund education can and should assist in some capacity during this critical time of transition.

We cannot afford to continue driving a wedge between the city and suburbs. The success of Shelby County depends on how well we can all work together going forward. Memphis needs the suburbs and the suburbs need Memphis. We all share the same county, goals and resources.

Basar is a member of the Shelby County Commission.

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