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VOL. 128 | NO. 210 | Monday, October 28, 2013

School Board Weighs Suburban Plan

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Schools board members could vote as early as Monday, Oct. 28, on the first elements of what amounts to a coexistence plan with the almost-formed suburban school districts.

Shelby County Schools board members could begin making decisions Oct. 28 on schools and students in unincorporated Shelby County.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The proposal, outlined by superintendent Dorsey Hopson at last week’s school board work session, involves approximately 20,000 students who live in the unincorporated areas of Shelby County, including the Memphis annexation reserve area and the 14 public schools outside the boundaries of any of the seven cities and towns within Shelby County.

The county’s cities and towns are Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, Memphis and Millington.

The plan also includes four schools – Lucy Elementary in Millington and Germantown Elementary, Middle and High Schools, which are within the city limits of Millington and Germantown, respectively.

The schools would remain within the Shelby County Schools system with students and their parents free to attend the new municipal schools districts being formed in the suburbs contingent on some kind of open enrollment plan with those new school systems.

Hopson told board members last week that he needs decisions from them on several basic questions, including whether the school board wants to educate children in the unincorporated areas.

Even if the board indicates it does not want to do that, Hopson said the school system has an obligation to at least have a plan for educating children in those areas in the event that those children are one day displaced as suburban school systems grow to such a degree that they can only take in children who live within the particular city or town they are established for.

Hopson also wants the board to make a general decision about whether to sell or lease the school buildings within the six suburban towns. Either one could involve a token dollar amount from the suburban school district buying or leasing the property, especially in the case of older school buildings.

From those general questions, the board would move to a more specific plan that involves attendance zone changes for the students living in unincorporated areas and now attending schools within the suburban towns and cities.

The board last week got a detailed look at the proposal for those changes at its work session.

Most of the suburban mayors indicating an opinion on the plan gave it their general backing as a basis for future planning and future talks, probably between the county schools board and the suburban school boards being elected next month.

The notable exception was Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy.

“We certainly would have been hopeful that there would have been an opportunity for us to have some conversation about this,” she said of the proposal to keep all three schools named for her city in the Shelby County Schools system.

Goldsworthy said she sent the school board a letter earlier in the week indicating the city of Germantown’s intent remains to educate all of the children inside and outside the Germantown city limits who currently attend schools in Germantown.

Hopson said his decision to propose keeping the three Germantown schools and the Millington school is because a majority of their students now live in the Memphis annexation reserve area. The schools are also a hedge against the need to build more schools and taking the request for capital funding to a Shelby County Commission that probably wouldn’t approve the funding.

“It appears that they have identified some of the reasons for it,” Goldsworthy said of the reasoning. “We certainly think we could have countered some of those concerns. It’s just difficult to understand why the door is being closed so quickly.”

Goldworthy also indicated that the private talks had primarily been conversations between the suburban leaders and the County Commission until recently.

“Only in the last couple of months has it kind of shifted to a conversation with the school board or with its legal representatives,” she said.

Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman called the proposal “a step in the right direction” with open enrollment “always a possibility.”

“I do think you will see open enrollment,” he said. “But some of those schools are at capacity so we could have an open enrollment policy all we want but as we continue to grow it would never get to open enrollment no matter what policy you have.”

Wissman acknowledged the three Germantown schools and the Millington school remain an issue but said Hopson’s concern about an obligation to at least have a plan for students in unincorporated Shelby County is legitimate.

“We’ve said all along that we would continue to educate the children in our current attendance zones,” Wissman said. “I can’t speak for the school boards when they are elected, but it will still be a recommendation that we still have some sort of exit grade strategies to allow some of these students to go there.”

Exit grade strategies are agreements that might allow smaller groups of students like rising seniors to be able to graduate from the high schools they now attend.

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