Beginning of the End? 

At Monday night’s SCS board meeting, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s transformational school plan was approved.

The great war over the fate of Shelby County's schools — one which has preoccupied activists of various kinds, the media, city, county, and state jurisdictions, and the judicial system — may soon be winding down.

And the winner is ...

click to enlarge Dorsey Hopson
  • Dorsey Hopson

Actually, that's a matter of opinion. As matters stand, with the Shelby County Schools board's adoption Monday night of a plan by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, there are several parties that might proclaim victory: the SCS board itself; the Shelby County Commission, whose majority has been litigating against the six suburban municipalities hatching independent school systems; and the majority of those municipalities, which seem satisfied with the plan.

If there is a loser, it is Germantown, which sees the territorial integrity of its municipal school system compromised by the absorption of three namesake schools — Germantown High School, Germantown Middle School, and Germantown Elementary — into the unified Shelby County Schools system.

Hopson announced his plan last week, and victory peals or alarm bells (depending on the source) began sounding almost instantaneously. But the outcome was not formalized until Monday night, when the SCS board finally sat in judgment over the plan.

Most unusually for a school board meeting of whatever jurisdiction, the evening's main drama was not delayed by curricular or procedural minutiae at the jam-packed business session in the Coe Administration Building on Avery. Germantown, whose officials and citizens showed up en masse to prevent it, saw the seven-member SCS board turn down its plea for retaining the three schools, or at least for more time to discuss it.

Referring to debate on the matter as "a conversation just begun," Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, said, "We respectfully ask, even urge, that you delay a definitive decision about the schools within the city of Germantown." She thereby led a parade of several fellow townsfolk in the board's opening public period, which also featured spokespersons for other causes, including the rescue of South Side High School from the state's ASD system, over which the board had no control, and for a K-through-eight expansion at Barrett's Chapel, over which it did have jurisdiction.

The Barrett's Chapel folks got their way, those from South Side couldn't, and those from Germantown didn't — despite some eloquent testifiers, including a Houston High parent wearing a Germantown Red Devil pullover in solidarity, and the young son of Tim Coulter, who followed his father with the affectingly simple line, "Please don't take my school" (an echo of the South Siders' own plea, "Please don't take our school away").

40-year Leases for Each Municipality

After the public period was over, there were reports — from board chairman Kevin Woods, from the chairs of various committees, and finally, the crucial one, the superintendent's report, delivered in Hopson's flat and measured phrasing.

After a typically understated reference to the "extraordinary level of angst" that had afflicted all sectors of the county during the school merger controversy, followed by a brief statement of the good news for the Barrett's Chapel contingent, Hopson detailed, city by city, his plan for the six incorporated suburbs that aim to have their own municipal school systems in August 2014.

Beginning with Arlington and proceeding through Bartlett, Lakeland, Millington, Germantown, and Collierville, Hopson read out his formula: a 40-year lease on terms to be negotiated for county school buildings currently within the cities' municipal limits and with each city responsible for defaults and damages.

In only two cases was the number of leasable properties less than the number within those limits. As had been revealed in Hopson's bombshell announcement last week, Shelby County Schools intends to maintain responsibility for Lucy Elementary School in a community newly annexed by Millington and for three namesake institutions in Germantown — Germantown High School, Germantown Middle School, and Germantown Elementary School.

As Hopson and other SCS spokespersons explained last week, the choice of institutions to be retained was dictated by the system's decision — for financial and various logistical reasons — to provide public education for the unincorporated areas of Shelby County and for the school-age populations in those areas. The four institutions chosen all contained majorities of pupils living in the unincorporated areas. (In an interview, though, Goldsworthy would contest that fact for Germantown Elementary.)

"In a nutshell," said Hopson, "I have authorized myself and Ms. [Valerie] Speakman [the board attorney]" as negotiators with the suburbs.

"In the North ... People Like this deal"

The first board member to address the Hopson resolution was David Pickler, representative of Germantown and Collierville. Pickler expressed himself as "deeply troubled" by a plan that had not been submitted to an "open, fair, and public conversation" but had been engineered with "a very specific guiding of what the outcome had to be."

Pickler then made a formal motion for the board to delay voting on the plan, pending "a more thought-out public process."

Board chairman Woods asked if there was a second, and there was none — a fact causing several of the Germantown advocates in the audience, who had applauded Pickler lustily, to gasp or cry out in disbelief.

The reason would be made obvious when, after a ritual endorsement of "a very thoughtful resolution" by Memphis board member Teresa Jones, Bartlett member David Reaves, in a regretful but firm manner, lowered the boom. "In the north ... most of the people like this deal," he said. "I sympathize, but I represent the north."

In a concession to Germantown sensibilities, Reaves did move to divide the board's voting on the plan six ways, city by city. That motion failed 5-2, with only Reaves and Pickler voting for it.

Before the board's vote on the Hopson resolution, former board chairman Billy Orgel, who had been honored earlier for his service during the board's 23-member transitional phase, said he thought the Hopson plan would hasten a mutually agreeable resolution of the whole merger controversy. (Unmentioned Monday night was the fact of the ongoing county commission litigation against the municipalities' school plans, still unsettled.)

Optional Status for Germantown Schools

Chairman Kevin Woods then posed a series of rhetorical questions to Hopson and attorney Speakman, addressing potentially contentious parts of the plan. That gave the superintendent the opportunity to note that the district would treat all three Germantown institutions as optional schools and that the staff and teachers at each would likely remain in place. For her part, Speakman affirmed that it was by no means unprecedented for schools within municipalities to function as parts of extraneous systems.

Pickler won one tenuous concession from Hopson — the superintendent's somewhat tepid acknowledgment that theoretically the board, during negotiation, could consider revising the question of Germantown's schools. The board then voted on Hopson's plan, endorsing it 5-1-1, with Pickler the only no vote and Reaves politely abstaining.

In a colloquy with reporters later on, Goldsworthy talked of convening her lawyers and trying again to get public discussions on modification of the Hopson plan. She had no ready answer when asked if there was any legal alternative to acceptance of the board's will. Asked if her city could run a viable school system minus the three affected schools and the state funding destined for students in the adjoining unincorporated area, she gamely suggested that, come what may, Germantown would succeed with its system.

Asked if there was any reason other than logistical for her city's bearing the brunt of sacrifice in the Hopson plan, Goldsworthy only smiled cryptically. When her interviewer suggested he couldn't interpret a smile, she answered, "Oh yes, you can."

(For more on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's plan, see Viewpoint, p. 15.)

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