Thursday, January 6, 2011

County School Board Advised to Prepare for Merger

Posted By on Thu, Jan 6, 2011 at 4:49 PM

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An attorney who is an expert on school district mergers in Tennessee told the Shelby County Board of Education Thursday that consolidating with Memphis City Schools would be difficult but "may be inevitable."

Chuck Cagle of Nashville met with the board for nearly two hours, answering questions on dozens of topics from funding to dress codes. He was methodical but did not appear partisan or scripted. His answers, he said, were designed to stand up in court, not please any constituency. He urged the board to put students first. He was given a loud ovation from board members when he finished.

"My admonition to you today is take the high road," he said, and do what "grants the greatest good to the greatest number of people."

Cagle said he has been through five previous school consolidations, including Knoxville and Chattanooga. He was introduced by board president David Pickler. Each of the seven board members took turns asking questions. Superintendent John Aitken was mostly an observer.

In his opening remarks, he said he would try to "stop the panic if we can and get to the hard business of what may be inevitable."

He said the size of the two districts alone makes this unique and especially difficult.

"Things are just different here," he said.

Some of Cagle's observations:

On tax savings: There were none in Chattanooga or Knoxville. "There is no evidence at all out there that consolidation saves money."

On costs: The biggest cost is equalizing pay and benefits, which account for 75-80 percent of most school system operating budgets.

On the current and potential future school board: Current county board members would serve out their terms. New districts would have to be drawn to cover all of Shelby County. A new board could have more than seven members.

How long it takes: Cagle estimated the transition would take a year to 18 months, based on the experience of other Tennessee cities. But that is only a guess because the potential merger would combine MCS, the 17th largest system in the country, with SCS, which is only the 7th largest system in Tennessee.

Superintendent contracts: They must be honored. Titles could change to "co-superintendent" or something else.

Teachers: "Teachers' rights are not diminished." The city's contract with its teachers is valid and must be honored.
Pay differentials for other staff would have to be worked out.

Charter school contracts are "a looming question" to be looked at case by case.

Federal contracts: "The federal government is going to have to figure out how to revamp their contracts" for instructional services and food service.

The Gates Foundation grant to MCS: "That is up to Gates Foundation."

Real property: Buildings do not transfer by statute. "Some delicate discussions have to be undertaken." This "could be a serious impediment" to a smooth transfer.

Who's in charge? It is the school board's job, not the county commissions, to manage the transition.

Could the MCS charter be put to a referendum by a petition of 25 citizens? Yes. Procedurally, such a petition would be forwarded to the city school board which could not override it and would pass it along to the Shelby County Election Commission.

Who gets to vote in a referendum? The situation is unique, and "a good argument could be made" that non-Memphis residents of Shelby County get to vote.

Is Memphis a special school district? Yes. "We can't get around that."

Is this a precursor to general consolidation? No. They are two issues. Knoxville never consolidated after its school systems were consolidated.

Does the MCS board cease to exist? "Technically, yes," if there were a referendum on Feb. 15 that approved shifting administration of schools to Shelby County. (NOTE: In a separate action Thursday, City Council Attorney Allan Wade said the referendum should say transfer administration, not surrender the charter.)

The fiscal year: From the point of view of state funding, the Memphis district would survive until June 30th then shift to Shelby County.

Building compliance with codes: They must be inspected and, if necessary, fixed out of capital funds. This is a likely source of lawsuits, Cagle said.

Transition team: Not required but "from my experience I would urge you to have one." Cagle said "It will help you know what you need to know."

Per-pupil spending: Could be reset somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000 or more.

Memphis taxes: "My experience has been there has been no reduction in city taxes when there has been consolidation." County taxes could go up. In a reversal of the current situation, county residents outside Memphis could be taxed twice and Memphians once if the charter is surrendered and Shelby County Schools goes ahead and becomes a special district. In that case, MCS would become the Shelby County Schools, minus the old Shelby County Schools.

Dress codes and corporal punishment: That is up to the policy manual. The controlling one would be the current SCS manual which does not have a dress code but does have corporal punishment.

What should SCS do? "My job is to give you options we can defend in court. You will make those decisions."

Board member Diane George asked, "are we just making this up as we go along?" Cagle said, "Yes, pretty much."

At the close of the meeting, Aitken asked the board to authorize litigation as a procedural process, which it did.

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