School merger begins to take shape

On August 29, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

Officials look to solidify transition team by end of week; new board members being determined

By Zack McMillin, Commercial Appeal
August 29, 2011

Consolidation of Shelby County’s schools, stuck in neutral for many months, began moving forward with last week’s settlement agreement and is poised to accelerate this week.

Officials charged with selecting the crew that will navigate the transition want to complete or come close to finalizing selection of two key bodies by the end of the week.

The Shelby County Commission today resumes deliberations over appointments for a countywide board. It will carve the county into seven new districts and select members from them. Those seven — likely five from the city and two from the suburbs — will join the nine members of Memphis City Schools board and seven from the suburban Shelby County Schools board for a a 23-member countywide school board that has ultimate responsibility during a nearly two-year transition period.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, SCS board chairman David Pickler and the state’s top three elected officials hope to soon make their appointments to the 21-member transition commission charged with creating a plan for a new combined school system of about 150,000 students.

“I think we’ve got the potential for building a really solid transition team,” Luttrell said Friday.

The settlement agreement reached on Wednesday with U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays still requires approval by the County Commission and Memphis City Council, but that is expected from the commission when it meets today and from the City Council in its next regular meeting on Sept. 6.

The agreement calls for the new combined board to take over governance of MCS and SCS by Oct. 1, although with explicit orders that both systems continue operating separately until consolidation is completed in time for the start of 2013-14 school year.

MCS on Thursday named its five members to the transition commission called for by the new Norris-Todd state law. The members run the gamut from education activists to academics experts in schools consolidations to former veteran board members and schools superintendents. Their ranks include a Collierville resident (Reginald Green) and a former SCS superintendent and board member (Fred Johnson), along with former MCS board member Barbara Prescott, Tennessee Stand for Children executive director Kenya Bradshaw and University of Memphis law professor Daniel Kiel.

SCS board members were directed by Pickler to submit up to three names each as nominees for that board’s five choices.

“This is one of the most important issues we will face,” said SCS board member Mike Wissman.

SCS board members talked about possibly going outside the county for some of their picks, in order to give the body expert insights. Pickler and others have talked about hiring consultants, although it is unclear where the funds would come from. Pickler said Thursday he had begun the process of approaching corporations and foundations for help.

As MCS and SCS staff begin to collaborate on moving forward with combining systems and operations by 2013, Pickler said transition commission members must also be capable of juggling a likely very hectic schedule of meetings and homework.

“This could be a group meeting on a weekly basis, certainly every couple of weeks,” Pickler said. “It will require people with the time flexibility to do it.”

Luttrell said he’s already made “a couple of commitments” to people who want slots, but is waiting to see other nominations in order to fill in any possible gaps in expertise or geographic or demographic diversity.

Luttrell, along with Pickler and MCS board president Martavius Jones, each will be non-voting members of the committee; Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and state House speaker Beth Harwell get one appointment each to go with the five each by Luttrell, MCS and SCS.

“The governor has not made an appointment at this point, but plans to do so in the near future in concert with the Speaker of the House and Lieutenant Governor,” said Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe. “He has said throughout this process that the state’s focus will continue to be on the students of Memphis and Shelby County, and his appointment will reflect that.”

Meanwhile, suburban municipalities are moving forward with plans to retain consultants to explore opting out of the envisioned countywide system and starting their own municipal school districts.

— Zack McMillin: (901) 529-2564

Staff reporters Richard Locker and Daniel Connolly contributed to this story.

Transition planning

One of the settlement agreement’s provisions calls for appointment of a special court “master” to settle any legal issues that arise and assure the judge’s orders are carried out correctly.

One possible issue: The relationship between the 23-member countywide schools board taking over Oct. 1 and the transition commission, which is called for by the new Norris-Todd state law. State Sen. Mark Norris, the Collierville Republican who wrote the bill, emphasizes that while the transition committee is advisory, the law is written such that the county board must follow its guidelines.

The settlement agreement last week says the new 23-member board “shall be responsible for adopting a transition plan,” but Norris believes that should be read as mandatory – not optional.

“So what this is intended to mean is that whatever the transition planning commission comes up with is what this new board shall adopt, if you read it together,” Norris said.

— Richard Locker and Zack McMillin

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