A Path Worth Taking 

There is a way to structure the schools to serve both urban and suburban residents.

Since 1998, I have had the honor and privilege of representing suburban interests as a member of the Shelby County Board of Education. Our board considered the ongoing independence and autonomy of our system as one of our most important objectives.

The action of the Memphis City Board of Education on December 20, 2010, to surrender its charter and the subsequent ratification of that action by voters within Memphis obviously changed the reality facing Shelby County Schools (SCS). Our board aggressively and vocally fought for the right of our system to remain independent through political campaigns and judicial challenges.

Ultimately, the ruling by U.S. District Court judge Hardy Mays on August 8, 2011, removed any doubt that a merger of the two school systems would become the new reality. It was now our challenge to ensure that the voters, stakeholders, and children of Shelby County Schools and suburban Shelby County had a strong and empowered voice in the process of creating a new district.

The negotiations that followed Mays' ruling led to the creation of an interim 23-person school board and the establishment of a 21-member Transition Planning Commission (TPC), enacted under the Norris-Todd revision of Tennessee Chapter 1. With the future of public education and perhaps our community dependent on the results of this process, it became evident that we had to concentrate our efforts to create a school system that could serve all children of Shelby County.

As a member of both the enlarged Uniform Shelby County School Board and the TPC, my responsibility has been to develop a plan that could present a viable option for all stakeholders.

Suburban leaders have been researching and considering legal options available to them, including the removal of the decades-old prohibition against the creation of new municipal districts.

Simultaneously, the state of Tennessee has begun to implement a takeover of some underperforming schools in Memphis City Schools, with the formation of an Achievement School District (ASD), led by charter-school pioneer Chris Barbic.

The ASD identified as many as 65 MCS schools that could fall under some form of new governance over the next several years — a fact coinciding with what looks to be an unprecedented growth in charter schools. These factors, combined with the prospect of municipal districts in the suburbs, have complicated the vision of a seamlessly unified district of 150,000 children.

We in the TPC have researched "best practice" school systems and successful and innovative programs all over the country. In our pursuit to achieve educational innovation and excellence, two models of system administration and governance have emerged.

One of the models, dubbed the Path to Autonomy, holds the promise of delivering a structure that conceivably could find favor from both suburban and urban stakeholders. In this model, a not-for-profit entity established as a 501(c)(3) under the IRS code would be able to establish a Charter Management Organization (CMO) that could operate one or multiple charter schools.

This could present a viable alternative to municipal districts as these CMOs could operate schools within a municipality or even incorporate larger areas of unincorporated schools.

One significant advantage of this "path to autonomy" would be that while the municipalities might acquire functional autonomy, the schools would remain under the umbrella of the larger district. The thorny issue of transferring school facilities would be removed, since the buildings, provided to the charter operators under lease arrangements, would remain the property of the larger Shelby County Schools system.

The concerns over creating "orphan schools" in unincorporated Shelby County could also be resolved as CMOs would be empowered to include these schools within their operations. Operational and legal services could be resolved as CMO operators might either contract with SCS or among themselves to achieve greater efficiencies and manage risks.

A major benefit of the Path to Autonomy would be the creation of a system that reflects our new reality in public education, a reality that includes the emergence of virtual schools, charter schools, and state-controlled ASD schools, as well as home- and private-school options. As opposed to creating an environment for conflict between urban and suburban interests, we could build a system that is a national model for educational innovation and success.

David Pickler, former chair of the Shelby County Schools Board, is currently a member of the Uniform Shelby County School Board and the Transition Planning Commission.

Also see this week's Flyer editorial on the school-merger process..

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