Haslam: Memphis-Shelby County schools merger on track

On January 13, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

Governor hopes legislators give ‘good-faith’ efforts time

By Jane Roberts, CommercialAppeal.com
January 13, 2012

Gov. Bill Haslam is impressed with the “good-faith” work being done to merge city and county schools and doesn’t want legislative bills filed this session that would interfere with that effort.

“The merger of these two districts is incredibly difficult and fraught with all sorts of tension, racial issues and everything else,” Haslam told The Commercial Appeal’s editorial board Thursday.

“My sense is there is a real good-faith effort being made now to come up with the right plan, and I would like to see that play out before anything else happened legislatively.”

But he acknowledged that lawmakers are free to introduce any legislation they want and vote accordingly. Some legislators already have hinted at bills favoring separating into municipal school districts.

As the former mayor of Knoxville, Haslam said he realizes how unwelcome direction from Nashville can be. Yet in the case of the school merger, “I do think in this case, we need to let this process play out for a year,” he said.

But Arlington mayor Mike Wissman said people in the suburbs have too many unanswered questions “to wait to see if everything falls into place.

“We can’t sit around and wait a year or two to decide then that we should have explored every opportunity now.”

Next week, the six suburbs are expected to receive a report on the feasibility of starting their own school districts. The Germantown Board of Alderman will discuss the findings Tuesday. Bartlett officials will discuss them Wednesday, and Collierville leaders have a work session scheduled for Thursday.

“He’s behind the process. We’re way ahead of that already,” said Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald.

Suburban lawmakers, including Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, have said they expect to file bills to force the Shelby County unified board to turn over underused or surplus buildings to the suburbs for free or at a greatly reduced price.

Lollar calls Haslam’s comments “noble,” but says when U.S. Dist. Judge Hardy Mays changed the thrust of the Norris-Todd bill, including providing for the election of seven-member school board in 2012, suburban leaders realized they had to stand up for themselves.

“We never said or suggested this municipal system would start before the deadline of Norris-Todd. We are not doing anything contrary.”

McDonald says legislation is necessary to clarify the issue because taxpayers in Bartlett and other suburbs paid to build and maintain the schools just like Memphis residents. “Therefore, we have as much right to those schools as Memphis did theirs,” he said.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, said he understands suburban legislators have to listen to their constituents.

“We need to realize we are still part of Shelby County as a whole. We can’t be so self-serving with individual interests that are not in the best interests of the county as a whole, especially when we are talking about children.”

Haslam’s comments came as he is traveling the state talking about the 55 bills on his legislative agenda, including a bill that would allow school districts to set their own teacher salary schedule.

Under Senate Bill 2210 filed by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, school boards could pay teachers more than the state schedule permits if they agree to teach in hard-to-staff subjects or schools.

Four school districts in the state already have received permission to enact alternate pay teacher plan schedules. Another 10, including Memphis City Schools, offer bonuses on top of what the state says teachers must earn.

Haslam also is proposing changes to the average class size to fund what he described as “incentive pay.”

But Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said increasing class size is a bad idea.

“It makes common sense that the fewer students a teacher has, the more individual attention they can give the child. This is going completely down the wrong road.”

Under the current salary schedule, pay is based on a teacher’s seniority and education. Teachers with master’s degrees, for instance, earn more money. Haslam wants teacher performance to be rewarded as equally valuable.


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