TPS under gun to have plan by August

On March 22, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

By Cynthia Bullion,
March 22, 2012

“We’ve really put a gun to our head,” Barbara Prescott said about an August goal the Transition Planning Commission is headed toward for presenting its Memphis City and Shelby County schools merger plan. “But there’s a lot of momentum going.”

Prescott is chair of the 21-member group that was created, according to state law, to advise the unified Shelby County Board of Education as it makes decisions regarding the looming 2013 merger of the city and county school systems.

She said during an exclusive, sit-down interview with Journal West 10, along with fellow TPC member Richard Holden, on Monday that the commission’s self-imposed timeline calls for merger recommendations, in addition to the Multiple Achievement Paths structure model recently approved, to be presented for public review by the end of May.

That’s around the same time as voters in suburbs like Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington and Germantown will participate in special referenda regarding the creation of municipal schools districts, a ban on which will be lifted in August 2013.

Prescott said that means those voters won’t have the complete picture of what a merged countywide school district could look like when they head to the polls on May 10.

“We are really trying to do everything we can,” she said. “I think the plan will be out before the referenda for raising taxes but not before people vote about creating municipal districts.”

The aforementioned municipalities have each approved asking voters during the Aug. 2 general election whether they would support a half-cent local option sales tax increase to fund respective municipal school districts.

Consulting firm Southern Educational Strategies, LLC recommended the referenda timing so that school board members could be elected for approved municipal school districts in November and begin the necessary work for a 2013 schools opening.

Suburban leaders have justified quick movement toward municipal schools as it is unclear how long the window of opportunity for such districts would be allowed to remain open following the MCS/SCS merger.

Additionally, a federal lawsuit has contributed to a loss of planning time for the municipalities and school systems alike. For example, appointments to the TPC were not finalized until this past September, nine months after MCS officials voted to surrender the district’s charter and effect a merger with SCS.

Former SCS board chairman and current unified school board and TPC member David Pickler suggested during a committee meeting this past week that a one-year delay in the merger, and linked municipal school district efforts, would not only give more time for the TPC to prepare its plan but also allow for more discussion with the public and addressing suburban concerns.

Such a delay would be have to be granted by the state legislature that passed the Norris-Todd law governing school mergers and is already well into its spring session.

“I thought more time was warranted when I introduced the bill which became law, but both school superintendents supported this time frame, and many criticized me for suggesting otherwise,” Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) said. “At this point, I think you’d need to see a consensus by Unified Board and TPC members for any amendments to Title 49 extending the date for transfer of administrations. And it’s almost too late this session to address such a request.”

Norris, who noted he had not been approached by the school board or TPC, said he does not know what could be accomplished through delay now — the TPC is nearing completion of its work and suburban municipalities have already begun moving toward creating their own school districts.

The TPC has not considered a proposal for delay in the merger though the idea will likely be address in Thursday’s executive committee meeting, Prescott said.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, who is among TPC members, said he also was unsure about a delay though a lot stands to be done in getting voters on board for and creating a municipal school district.

“At first blush, it appears to be helpful,” he said, explaining by SES’ timeline a superintendent would be charged with making the district ready for students in a seventh-month period.

Some Bartlett residents have told McDonald, however, they have no desire to wait when it comes to municipal schools.

“I hope to have the opportunity to speak with the other suburban mayors and get their thoughts,” McDonald said.

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