By Zack McMillin, Commercial Appeal

September 4, 2011

With all the moving parts involved in merging Shelby County’s two school systems — two superintendents and their staffs, 21 members of a transition commission, 23 members of a unified countywide school board — there is one certainty: the operations of Memphis City Schools must be combined with Shelby County Schools in time for the the 2013-14 school year.

When the final appointments to the school board and transition team are made in coming days, those already involved have a message — welcome aboard, grab an oar and start rowing.

The effort also needs to be synchronized, because as SCS Supt. John Aitken points out, most of the key decisions must be made many months before the first school bells ring, likely in August 2013.

“I think that anything that comes forward has to be in place by December of 2012 — at the latest,” Aitken said.

And it all has to come together as Aitken and MCS Supt. Kriner Cash continue to operate their respective systems over the next two years.

“I would hope as much as humanly possible the staffs are allowed to focus on delivering education to the 150,000 children that need to be served the next two years,” said David Pickler, SCS board chairman. “One of the benefits of the planning committee is for them to have the singular focus of what are the best practices, what is the best way forward for us to build the new district.”

Collaboration will be key, say those involved. While much has been made over whether the transition team or the unified school board will have the greater voice, the actual process will require the same kind of coordination expected between a school board and the superintendent and staff, say Pickler and MCS board member Betty Mallott.

Using as an example the process MCS undertook to win the grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mallott pointed out that Cash and his staff did much of the work — but in concert with the board, key stakeholders in the system and wider community.

“But ultimately we had to approve it,” Mallott said. “And you saw how collaborative it was. Once you know it’s got wide consensus support from the community, why would a board oppose it?

“That’s why it’s important it be done in a collaborative way early on so that it’s a no-brainer by the time we get to put a stamp of approval on it.”

Pickler and Mallott will be part of the 23-member school board that on Oct. 1 takes over governance of both systems and the transition, as outlined in the court settlement agreement last month. Joining the nine current MCS members and seven current SCS members on the school board will be seven new members to be appointed by the County Commission — from new districts drawn throughout the county.

Interviews for those new seven seats will be held this week, and appointments made next week.

“One of the things I see the planning committee doing, working in concert with the school board, is to really establish a timeline working backwards — when certain decisions need to be made, set deadlines, create appropriate expectations of how the process should work,” Pickler said. “I see an awful lot of big-picture thinking at the beginning.”

The County Commission on Wednesday will also discuss the five picks made Thursday for the transition team by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. SCS is expected to make its five appointments to the transition commission this week, as well.

MCS made its five picks the day after the settlement, and Gov. Bill Haslam and House speaker Beth Harwell, both selected a member on Friday. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey will also make one appointment to the panel.

“The transition committee is going to have to be working with the school board and certainly addressing issues with them,” said Luttrell, who along with Pickler and MCS board president Martavius Jones will be a nonvoting member of the transition team. “There needs to be collaboration and it’s certainly a point I’ll be emphasizing.”

Because, as Luttrell notes, the judge has ruled that the school board has ultimate responsibility for adopting the transition team’s recommendations, and is the only entity with legal authority to do things like order textbooks, purchase or lease school buses and institute disciplinary policies.

State Sen. Mark Norris, the Republican majority leader from Collierville, has emphasized that this sort of community collaboration was always his primary motivation for pushing through the Norris-Todd legislation which was sponsored in House by Collierville Republican Curry Todd.

“You cannot have unification without unity,” Norris often says in interviews.

The legislation essentially incorporated long-standing Tennessee education law into the process of merging MCS and SCS, and it says the school board “shall adopt” the plans created by the transition committee.

Also key, says Norris, is the requirement that the state Department of Education approve the plan. Much of the state’s focus will be on ensuring teachers’ rights and benefits are not diminished, but Norris also takes pains to point out the state provides most of the money for public education and must have an influence over the merger of two of the state’s largest school systems.

It remains unclear when or where the transition team will meet or what funding or other outside assistance will be available.

“We certainly know there will be a need for some seed capital,” said Pickler, who, like MCS’ Jones, runs a wealth-management firm. “There is going to be a need for some basic infrastructure. If we are really going to attempt to reach out there and grab that brass ring and develop that world-class system, we’ll need to be effective and efficient with resources but we sure as heck need for everyone to come together and ensure that we do have the tools necessary to get a great result.”

Mallott of MCS has participated in enough board meetings to know points of contention will arise, but like many involved, is hopeful a spirit of teamwork prevails over the course of the transition.

“I don’t think it will be controversial, although that does not mean there won’t be a single controversy here and there,” Mallott said. “But in terms of the board approving a plan, it won’t be a huge controversy.”

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