VOL. 128 | NO. 46 | Thursday, March 7, 2013
Special Master Has Tight Five-Month Window
By Bill Dries
The special master appointed by U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays to oversee the schools merger knows the political and fiscal dealings of large local government entities.
Rick Masson is a former city of Memphis finance director and chief administrative officer. The positions deal with building budgets and the structure of running a government on a day-to-day basis.
He recently joined consulting and marketing firm Caissa Public Strategy LLC as its lead strategist on local and regional projects. He ran his own private consulting firm prior to joining Caissa.
Masson also knows countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel. And just hours after Mays issued the order Tuesday, March 5, appointing Masson, Orgel described Masson as a “bridge builder.”
“I didn’t see his name on the original list,” Orgel said, referring to suggestions several parties in the federal lawsuit over schools made to Mays about who he should choose if he appointed a master. “I’m thrilled that he was appointed. He’s a great public servant. He’s worked tirelessly in the public and the private sector. I think he’ll be of benefit in this process.”
Masson’s appointment by Mays changes the process of setting up the structure of the consolidated school district. It comes four months before the July 1 start of the fiscal year that is the first for the merged school district and five months to the day before the Aug. 5 first day of classes for the school district.
“The court’s purpose in entering this order is not to assume the management of the two school systems or to make decisions about the transition,” Mays wrote in the order issued late Tuesday afternoon.
“The court’s purpose is to fulfill its obligation to enforce the consent decree. At a minimum, that means that, in adequate time before the beginning of the school year in 2013, students will know the school they will attend and how they will get there, have a safe and clean place to learn, have teachers prepared to teach them, and have an established curriculum.”
Mays singled out the task of appointing a merger superintendent writing, “It also means that the Shelby County Board of Education must, as soon as practicable, appoint a single superintendent with strong educational credentials, even if on an interim basis.”
Masson was appointed because of concerns Mays expressed unexpectedly at a Feb. 25 status conference about the progress the school board was making in approving merger recommendations delivered to it last August by the consolidation planning commission.
At the closed conference, Mays also made clear that the merger process is controlled by a consent decree all sides in the lawsuit agreed to in 2011 that settled the part of the 2-year-old case dealing with the schools merger. The case has since moved on to a challenge by the Shelby County Commission of the terms for establishing municipal school districts in the suburbs.
In his order Tuesday, Mays again made clear that through the decree, he could exercise more direct control to meet what is an unwavering deadline for the merger that he will not change.
“If circumstances require, the court is prepared to expand the duties of the special master and to make such decisions as may be necessary to enforce the consent decree,” Mays wrote, adding he would consult with all sides in the case if he thought such a change was necessary.
For now that won’t be the case and the board made a set of critical merger decisions Tuesday evening that affirm the continuation of Teacher Effectiveness Initiative reforms into the merger across the countywide system.
The policies approved by the board move to a system where teacher pay is determined by a system that replaces seniority with other factors including student performance and observation of teachers by principals as well as professional development opportunities. The policies also include a system of mutual consent in which a teacher and a principal agree on a teacher’s assignment to a particular school.
The measures were the dominant feature of Kriner Cash’s four-and-a-half years as Memphis City Schools superintendent and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the tune of $90 million over a seven-year period.
The board also approved Tuesday a two-year $1 million contract with the education reform group Teach for America to provide nearly 200 teachers for the consolidated school district. The contract is also part of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and funded by the Gates Foundation.
“We’ve had a great week of moving forward,” said Orgel, who added he will be meeting with Masson soon. “I think he might provide us with some deadlines and give us some thoughts about when we should make decisions of some type. I expect to work with him very closely.”