After setting policies on school uniforms and labor unions, next up for the countywide school board is a single policy for the two combined school systems on student access to cell phones.
Interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson gave school board members the preview Tuesday, May 28, of what is certain to be a coming debate at the June board meetings as they approved a much-discussed policy on uniforms and dress codes.
Unlike the uniform policy, the cell phone recommendation from Hopson and his cabinet will be to “harmonize” – that is have a single policy for the single consolidated school system.
The uniform policy keeps in place the uniform or dress code policies that schools have on a school-by-school basis. Eight Shelby County elementary and middle schools had such a policy.
The rest of the county schools didn’t. Some Memphis City Schools required uniforms, while others had a dress code and still others had uniforms that reflected school colors.
The decision signals the final stages of the transition to the schools merger that begins formally with the July 1 start of the new fiscal year but begins for more than 140,000 school children and their parents on the first day of classes Aug. 5.
Hopson described the uniform/dress code policy he recommended and the board adopted as site-based decision making.
During the 2013-2014 school year, there will be no changes from the past school year in what students are allowed to wear at a particular school.
A principal and the parent council at a school could come to the school system with a petition seeking to either have or drop a uniform policy or dress code standards. Hopson and his staff would review the petition. If they approve it, the school would then keep whatever the decision is for the next four school years before they would be allowed to change it again.
If a school doesn’t take any action toward a policy, the four-year clock doesn’t start running until or if they do.
“I think our overriding objective is to get schools merged and then let the community weigh in the following year,” Hopson said. “Some of the schools, the uniforms are a good tool to keep discipline. And some schools don’t face those challenges.”
“It’s inequitable,” said school board member Tomeka Hart. “I understand the timing, but this was always on the radar.”
School board member Patrice Robinson expressed concern that city school students would bear a stigma.
“Does that disproportionately identify children who are in Memphis City Schools, especially African-American males who have a problem with law enforcement?” she asked. “How are we going to balance that perception with how our children are going to be treated based on how they are dressed?”
But school board member Jeff Warren said one policy should not apply to all in this case.
“There are things that are not exactly equal in both districts,” he said. “This makes sense. It’s really not a fair issue. It doesn’t make any sense that we should force just one policy.”
Meanwhile, the school board voted down a resolution offered by Warren that would have recognized existing labor unions as representative of employees short of collective bargaining rights.
“What they’re really asking for and what they’re wanting is a place at the table to discuss issues that affect their members,” Warren said.
Warren changed the wording to delete any reference to collective bargaining rights after Hopson and school board attorney Valerie Speakman expressed concerns.
Tennessee law doesn’t recognize collective bargaining rights for employees other than teachers. And state law limits those rights for teachers.
Past memorandums of understanding between the board and labor unions are not binding and the school system has changed them or not abided by them, said Hopson, who was Memphis City Schools general counsel before becoming interim superintendent.
Hopson said the school system is still hiring teachers and Speakman said there would inevitably be questions about who the unions represented and who chose them to represent which group of employees.
She termed such recognition “a unilateral decision.”
“You could very likely put yourselves in a situation to be sued by those who do not wish to be covered,” Speakman added.
She also said deleting any reference to collective bargaining in the resolution didn’t make any difference.
“You can call it a clock if you want to,” she said. “That doesn’t change anything legally.”
Warren said he didn’t understand not opening up nonbinding talks with the unions “unless we are just trying to bust unions.”
“We’re not trying to bust anybody. It is the law,” said school board member David Reaves. “I wonder how many employees pay dues to an organization that has no enforceable contract?”