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VOL. 128 | NO. 44 | Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Ritz, McDonald Clash on Suburban Schools Talks

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Commission and the county’s suburban mayors agree in writing and in a court proceeding on something related to schools.

But that remains the exception to the rule, particularly on issues beyond the first year of the schools merger – namely separate suburban school systems.

MCDONALD

“Here locally we are going to be entangled in this constant fight of us and them. That’s going to go on forever I think,” Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said last week on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “We’re going to have to look to somebody else to have a say in this over the ability for us, as a charter municipality, to do what we believe we have the right to do.”

McDonald was on the program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, with Shelby County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz.

Ritz and McDonald were at the center of private talks that began late last year and ended in February aimed at a settlement of the municipal school districts part of the federal court case.

RITZ

They called off the talks in February saying they had failed to reach a resolution.

Ritz says the two sides were close to an agreement on charter school districts for the suburbs.

“We could have done it but it’s cumbersome. We have 11 schools in Bartlett. We would have had to go to each school,” McDonald said. “We’d have had to create a charter managing organization. What we look to do is a true municipal organization as a back up. But let’s be clear, our first choice is municipal schools.”

And charters as well as municipal school districts each remain active options, McDonald said.

“They have authority to do it right now. They could have done it in 2011,” Ritz said of direct talks between the suburbs and the school board. “They could have done it earlier and they can do it now.”

McDonald has said an agreement might have been possible if the suburban leaders could have talked directly with the countywide school board instead of the County Commission.

“Basically, they blocked us from that … in the negotiations,” McDonald said on the set of the television program after the show had ended.

“Mayor, I can’t believe you would say that,” Ritz replied. “That is an absolute misrepresentation. Do you want me to publicly show the public what we negotiated?”

“We asked,” McDonald answered.

“We begged you to go start negotiating with the city schools,” Ritz countered. “But you wouldn’t do it.”

“Under certain conditions that you put forth,” McDonald added.

“I love dealing with you,” Ritz then said. “I really do. You don’t represent the truth.”

“Oh my gosh, your delusional,” McDonald said at the end of the exchange.

Meanwhile, Ritz and McDonald agreed that U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays should appoint a special master to oversee the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems. The special master should have been appointed sooner, they added.

“That was not done and I think that was a mistake,” McDonald said.

McDonald, who was on the consolidation planning commission, which sent a set of merger recommendations to the school board last August, said the group wanted the special master appointed and involved in the transition early on.

He also questioned the school board’s direction so far to “level up” the two school systems to each other across various areas from staffing to benefits all in the first year of the merger.

“My understanding of the legislation is they’ve got three years to do that,” McDonald said. “For whatever reason, they’re choosing to try to do all of those in the first year. I think that’s a mistake.”

The result is a federal judge who is unhappy enough about the pace of merger decisions by the school board that he appears likely to appoint a special master with five months to the start of the merger in classrooms across Shelby County.

“I really wish we would have thought about it earlier,” Ritz said of the special master. “We hadn’t thought about it in awhile.”

His concern is a lack of decisions to date on the most controversial recommendations of the planning commission that represent the biggest lump-sum savings and the role those decisions will play in some kind of county property tax hike passing the County Commission to fund the consolidated school system.

“My concern is that to find seven votes to provide them financing this year is going to be very difficult,” Ritz said. “If they want to blame it on the County Commission because they don’t have the money, that’s fine. We’ll move on.”

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