The School-Merger Muddle 

Will Memphis and its suburbs ever get it together?

Memphis state representatives Lois DeBerry and former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh react angrily to the Norris bill advancing the date for municipal school districts.

Jackson Baker

Memphis state representatives Lois DeBerry and former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh react angrily to the Norris bill advancing the date for municipal school districts.

Anybody who claims to know just where the Memphis-Shelby County school-merger process is headed at this point should turn in their seer's license and do something else, maybe pump gas for a living. This is especially true after a week in which the principal players in the drama have conspicuously spoken at cross-purposes.

To be sure, the mayors of five suburban communities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Arlington — know, or think they know, where they want the process to go, but Governor Bill Haslam, he of the potential veto and the bully pulpit, chose this week to make the strongest of a series of statements cautioning the mayors and other advocates of separate suburban school districts to, in the vernacular, keep their pants on.

Talking with reporters in Nashville on Monday after speaking to a 4-H group, the governor remarked on the "great work" being done by the Transition Planning Commission, the 21-member advisory group which, as he noted, had been put in place by Norris-Todd," the merger-oversight bill that Haslam signed into law last year.  

Haslam once again repeated his belief, first stated for the record after a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Memphis in January, that the commission should be allowed to complete its work — specifically, a detailed proposal to the interim Unified School Board of Shelby County, due June 15th — before "the municipals make a decision" about creating separate school districts of their own.

Strictly speaking, of course, the suburban communities would not be empowered to act on creating independent districts until August 2013, the time set by Norris-Todd for completing the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. That was also the timetable emphasized by state attorney general Robert Cooper in a bombshell opinion last month which stated that the five Shelby County suburbs could not proceed with planned May 1st referenda or take any other concrete steps toward establishing municipal districts until August 2013.

Subsequent to Cooper's opinion, the Shelby County Election Commission met and officially canceled the referenda.

Again citing Norris-Todd (which later was incorporated in rulings by presiding U.S. district judge Hardy Mays) as the authority for the merger process, Haslam said, "I would hate to see that process cut off." Even more tellingly, the governor answered, "I don't know," when asked if he might veto pending legislation to alter the Norris-Todd framework.

           

Ironically, the principal force behind that legislation, consisting of two bills that at press time were making headway toward passage, is state senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), the GOP majority leader in the Senate and the primary author of Norris-Todd, which was co-sponsored in the House in February 2011 by another Collierville Republican, Curry Todd.

Norris' Senate Bill 2908 would jump up to January 1, 2013, the suburbs' date of eligibility for municipal-district status. Passed by the Senate without much incident, the measure, as House Bill 3234, had encountered a fair share of grumbling — from Republicans as well as Democrats — before landing in the House Education Committee for consideration this week. Denounced in the education subcommittee two weeks ago by former House speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) as furthering "segregation," the bill was singled out for suspicion on other grounds by committee Republicans such as Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville).

One factor dampening enthusiasm for the bill was undoubtedly the fact that its lifting of the ban on municipal districts would apply statewide, not just in Shelby County. That change, introduced as a hedge against potential litigation, made it unlikely that the bill could command the party-line unity conferred on the original Norris-Todd bill.

Another new Norris initiative comes in the form of an amendment to an existing bill by House education committee chair Richard Montgomery (R-Sevierville). As originally put forth by Montgomery, the bill would merely mandate that school boards develop evaluation plans for school directors. Norris' amendment would graft onto the bill an immediate authorization for municipalities to call referenda on establishing new school districts and to hold school board elections in calendar 2012.

In effect, the bill would cancel out Attorney General Cooper's opinion and give the Shelby County suburbs a green light again for quick action to establish school districts.

But that bill requires further action in both the Senate and the House, where, at the beginning of this week, Norris' amendment had not yet been attached. And Montgomery was quoted as being reticent to confer his approval on the add-on.

Not only could Norris' new legislative moves be seen as upsetting the course of things prescribed in Norris-Todd, whose framework in the unaltered form had just been freshly endorsed by Haslam, and not only did they risk becoming red flags to a formerly compliant Republican legislative majority, but they seemed also to have created something of a backlash on the Transition Planning Commission.

At its weekly meeting last Thursday, TPC member Christine Richards had, more or less in acquiescence to the suburban mayors' expressed intent to expedite a move toward independent school districts, presented a resolution of endorsement for Norris' bill moving up the eligibility date to January 1st.

As discussion unfolded on the commission, a majority of TPC members seemed responsive to Richards' argument that the commission's own timetable might be facilitated by getting this issue out of the way, and, however grudgingly, they appeared ready to approve her resolution.

But that developing consensus was nipped in the bud by the dawning realization that a second Norris initiative, the amendment to Montgomery's bill, was under way. Gradually a confusion over distinguishing between the two bills morphed into a feeling that the new bill, which had seemed to come out of nowhere, was a stealth measure. The mood escalated further into a mounting irritation with what several members described, in terms consistent with Haslam's cautionary remarks this week, as legislative "interference" with their work.

The bottom line: Support for Richards' resolution, which had seemed to be moving toward passage, collapsed. Even supporters of municipal school districts, like Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, a TPC member and de facto spokesperson for the suburban movement, demurred — at least partly because Richards' resolution also spoke of postponing the advent of functioning suburban school districts until the 2014-15 school year.

That clause of the Richards resolution, however, may have been simple realpolitik, as, on all sides and among all factions, the apprehension seemed to be growing that both city/county school merger itself and the establishment of independent school districts were subject to unforeseen complications.

A similar realization seemed to have been the motive behind a recent proposal by David Pickler, the former longtime board chairman of Shelby County Schools, who inherited thereby a seat on both the TPC and the interim Unified School Board. Pickler suggested that all the parties agree on a one-year delay in implementing Norris-Todd and petition Judge Mays to that end.

The first responses to Pickler's suggestion had seemed receptive, but when it came before the TPC executive committee last Thursday in the form of a formal motion, resistance to it had hardened. Some, like Reginald Green, a University of Memphis professor and TPC member, invoked the imperatives of civil rights history and argued that educational unity required the most immediate possible action.

Others appeared mindful that the TPC, which had been brought into being as an ad hoc body on a strictly limited calendar basis, had begun to devour the time and energy of its members and should take pains to remain on schedule. There was, too, a growing esprit de corps on the body that transcended its factions and generated a momentum toward producing results.

For all these reasons and more, Pickler's resolution, too, went nowhere in the end.

           

So, in the absence of further legislative or judicial amendment, the schedule set forth by Norris-Todd and approved by Judge Mays will hold — though, paradoxically, it is seen, often by the same set of observers, as both too abrupt and too drawn out.

The 23-member Unified School Board, whose membership is currently comprised of the nine former members of the MCS board, the seven holdovers from the SCS board, and seven new members appointed last year by the Shelby County Commission, will be subject to an election on August 2nd that will narrow the board's numbers down — perhaps temporarily — to seven.

The positions will be based on the seven countywide districts established by the county commission last year, though the commission has since voted to expand the board's membership to 13 at some future point that will be agreed upon with Mays, who has approved the expansion in principle.

Meanwhile, the TPC will make its formal recommendation to the existing Unified School Board of a merger plan by the self-imposed deadline of June 15th. Under the terms of Norris-Todd and the memorandum of understanding between the various parties brokered by Mays, it will be up to the school board to do what it will of the recommendation — though all indications are that the board will lean heavily on what the TPC presents it.

And finally the merger of MCS and SCS will be formally accomplished at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, by which time the board elected this August will be in charge and a superintendent will have been named. As of that date — again, unless the schedule is amended by intervening legislation or judicial action — those suburban municipalities determined to form their own school districts (presumably including the aforementioned five plus Millington) will have the opportunity to poll their citizens, obtain their approval for new property tax and sales-tax levies to fund the systems, and proceed with establishing the machinery for the new independent districts.

Even to set forth the obstacles confronting the suburbs in capsule form is to hint at their truly awesome complexity. Unresolved at the moment is the matter of whether and how the municipalities might combine in some common association with each other so as to pool transportation and administrative expenses. Also at issue is whether the municipalities will be legally empowered, singly or collectively, to serve students in adjoining unincorporated areas of Shelby County and to receive the corresponding funding amounts from county, state, and federal sources, as the financial estimates of their consultants at Southern Educational Strategies assumed they would be.

And there is the vexing issue, sure to be litigated in the event that separate municipal districts are established, of how and at what cost existing school properties could be made over to the new suburban entities.

McDonald and others argue persuasively that the properties have, in effect, already been paid for by suburban citizens on the basis of a state A.D.A. (Average Daily Attendance) ratio that has mandated that for every dollar expended on capital outlays in suburban Shelby County, three dollars be made available to MCS. Thus, say the proponents of suburban districts, their citizens have already overpaid to the point of meriting full ownership of the facilities, without further payments. And they speak of precedents whereby former county schools had been transferred to MCS at no expense.

Opponents of such a "free" transfer, like Martavius Jones, former MCS board chairman and current member of both the Unified Board and the TPC, object, among other things, that those former transfers from county to city jurisdiction involved a thicket of quid pro quos that did in fact amount to compensation for Shelby County Schools. And on the larger issue, they invoke the mathematics of another vantage point, arguing that county taxes paid by Memphis residents have always been at the disposal of SCS.

Resolving the dilemma of school facilities will be a Solomonic task, for Judge Mays or whomever.

Independent of the problems linked to the creation of municipal districts is the basic matter of how to construct a unified system, whether it ends up including Shelby County's outer suburbs or not.

A parenthesis here to observe two further ironies:

1) Should the final enabling clause of Norris-Todd be acted upon and should the suburbs acquire their independent systems and manage to form an association of them, the former "city" schools (MCS) will have become the official "county" schools, and the former "county" schools will have become "city" schools. (The chief difference, for Memphis residents, is that they will be spared what has been the dual cost of county and city educational taxes; that burden of double taxation will be passed to the suburbs.)

2) Even if the suburban municipalities should obtain their independence from the schools of incorporated Memphis, the seven (or, later, 13) districts from which members of the Unified School District board will be elected would apparently include all the suburban areas. That structure would be at odds with the one imposed by the federal courts in 1993 in determining who should be able to vote for the board members of SCS. That franchise was judicially restricted to residents of outer Shelby County.

Meanwhile, the TPC has already voted to approve a preliminary framework. Called the Multiple Achievement Paths model, it is frankly an attempt to be all things to all people and could apply to either a fully consolidated all-county system or one that, in practical terms, might be limited to the Memphis city limits.

In its present form, the model — brokered for the TPC by the Boston Consulting Group, which has abundant experience in such matters — allows for the reality of Memphis city schools per se, a separate collection of suburban schools, and such charter schools as pertain to either area, as well as those institutions judged to be "failing" by the state Education Department and are routed into at least temporary management by the state itself. Though an ultimate common standard of student achievement would be applied to all the institutions, the separate aggregations would possess broad autonomies of curriculum and administration. And parents need not fear: The age of busing is over, and neighborhood patterns of school attendance would prevail.

Numerous details remain to be worked out, but the Multiple Achievement Paths model seems to have succeeded in hitting the middle between widely differing expectations.

The advocates of municipal school districts acknowledge that the scheme might be a worthy fallback plan, but they have so far declined to endorse it, noting that, as Bartlett mayor McDonald put it, the model, which remains at least nominally under the supervision of a common school board, would be subject in practice to unforeseen changes in that board.

But a possible convert to Multiple Achievement Paths is, surprisingly, Norris himself, the influential legislator who has so far carried the suburbs' water without spilling many drops, if any. But in an interview with the Flyer late last month, Norris declared himself amenable to the plan, provided it included bona fide suburban school districts as such within its framework.

As Norris saw a perfected version of the model, it might allow maximum autonomy under the limited supervision of a common board, and the plan would automatically solve the riddle of what to do with school properties, as well as eliminate the added-cost factor, inasmuch as the buildings would continue to be commonly held by a county entity. Norris was philosophical about the suburban mayors' fears of future changes in administration, noting that political fluctuations are a given in any system.
That piece of musing by the House majority leader took place before he renewed his legislative efforts to speed up the prerogatives available to suburban residents, but presumably nothing in them would invalidate what he said last month.

Perhaps the Multiple Achievements Paths model, if properly refined and approved by the Unified School Board, can resolve all the teeming dilemmas associated with merger process and perhaps not. But there does seem to be a new resolve on all sides to find a solution amenable to all sides.

At a recent county commission retreat, Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, who has largely kept his own counsel and attempted to act as mediator, declared, apropos the prospect of suburban school districts, "If they are going to move in that direction, I think they need to be supported."

And at the same event, Billy Orgel, the chair of the Unified School Board, said, "I don't think it's our job, as commissioners, as members of the school board, to talk against that." Pointedly, Orgel had been one of those board members who had managed to narrowly prevent the board's approval of an agreement between county government and the board itself that would require suburban districts to pay compensation for any use of existing school properties.

One problem with the kind of compromise agreement that would include fully developed suburban school districts within a Unified School District was noted by TPC chair Barbara Prescott at last week's meeting. The commission's charge was to unite two LEAs (local education agencies), not to add five new ones, she pointed out.

Ah well, perhaps something can be deduced from a fact regarding David Pickler, the then SCS chair whose public zeal in late 2010 for a separate suburban school district is often cited as the proximate cause of an MCS board majority's decision to surrender their system's charter, thereby forcing city/county school merger.

Pickler, a Germantown resident, this week became a candidate for a position on the Unified School Board.  His former arch-foe and opponent in the 2010 SCS board election, Ken Hoover, has meanwhile signed Pickler's petition but is betting on a different overall outcome, intending to run for a place on the school board of a hypothetical Germantown district.

Time will tell which one of them is on the money.

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