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VOL. 128 | NO. 206 | Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hopson Offers Clues on Suburban Schools Transition

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson says it is looking less likely that the school system will provide support services to the new suburban school districts.


“There was some discussion early on,” Hopson said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “But I think as we move forward and some of the talks have happened between the County Commission and the municipal schools … I’m not so certain that there is going to be a wide menu of services that the municipal schools are going to even want. I don’t think we can build a budget around the possibility of sharing services.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Hopson’s comments offer one of the few on-the-record glimpses at what is happening during ongoing talks between the Shelby County Commission and the mayors of the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County. Both sides in the ongoing federal lawsuit over the local school reformation have been talking since August trying to reach a settlement in the part of the lawsuit involving the creation of suburban school districts. Unlike earlier talks, the countywide school board is involved in those private settlement discussions.

Some on the Shelby County Commission believe there could be some public indication of where the talks are during Wednesday committee sessions of the County Commission.

Meanwhile, the early voting period opened Friday, Oct. 18, Downtown in four of the six sets of elections for the suburban school boards that will govern the municipal school districts. The two other cities, Arlington and Collierville, do not have early voting in advance of the Nov. 7 election day because all of the school board races in each of those municipalities are uncontested.

Hopson said he and his staff are planning for at least seven scenarios that range from all of the suburban school districts beginning operation with the 2014-2015 school year to all of them deciding to delay their first school year beyond that.

At a board-staff retreat last week, Hopson’s office estimated the start-up of all seven suburban school districts next August would have an impact of more than $52 million on the county schools system’s bottom line.

“The biggest driver in that $52 million number is about $28 million in health and retiree benefits, insurance benefits. That’s going to stay with the Shelby County Schools regardless,” Hopson said of the obligation to fund such benefits until the retired employees reach 65 years of age. “If you started working for the Shelby County Schools when you were 20 and you worked for 30 years and now you are 50, Shelby County Schools pays those retiree health insurance benefits. … We are going to have a $28 million cost next year on that. That’s not going away.”

The benefits are “hard costs” that remain even though the school system will have less in the way of expenses because it would be operating fewer schools with fewer students and need fewer teachers with the opening of the suburban school districts.

“But then the central office cost and the school support costs and the insurance cost and the OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) liability – that remains,” Hopson said. “What we’ll do and what we are anticipating doing is obviously the central office will shrink some more.”

This week the school system also sends its application to federal officials in Washington to take up the $23 million in federal funding for the Head Start program now administered by Shelby County government. Hopson confirmed the application envisions a staff of four or five in the school system’s central office to contract out with Head Start providers and enforce a new “rigor” to align early childhood development at the centers with what the school system begins teaching those children when they reach kindergarten.

Head Start is a program that involves some prekindergarten classrooms but also early childhood development before the age of 4.

Separate from the Head Start contract, Memphis voters go to the polls Nov. 21 to vote up or down a half-percent sales tax hike that would go to fund a prekindergarten expansion in Memphis separate from the school system administered by a city government prekindergarten commission.

Hopson said he was uncertain if the school system would seek to provide those services as well under contract.

“I know that we have some very strong pre-K programs and pre-K curriculum,” he said. “I would hope that, at a minimum, if that passes we’ll do a lot of coordinating (with the city).”

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