Keep It Together 

A county commissioner proposes a system to unify city and county schools.

No matter what side you took in the school merger debate, the next steps in carrying out the judge's decree will have a huge impact on our community for years to come.

Both sides had valid arguments, but it is crucial that we now put aside that debate and form a school system that surpasses expectations. The path of least resistance will be simply to let the larger system dictate the shape and administration of the merged district, but we have an opportunity to take the best from both systems and learn valuable lessons.

Research varies on the optimum size for school districts. A merged MCS/SCS system will have about 150,000 students, presenting a challenge that will require an innovative plan.

Call it "kumbaya" or whatever, a good start would be to recognize that the city and county need each other.

Shelby County's municipalities, by virtue of the Norris-Todd bill, can pursue their own school districts and would lay claim to their own proportionate amount of federal/state dollars — at a rate of $8,700 per student.  

Since Memphis will no longer be bound to continue its maintenance-of-effort payments to a defunct Memphis City Schools, the merged system would in any case start out nearly $80 million in the red. It is in Memphis' best interest to make the merged system attractive enough to the outer municipalities to prevent further funding drain.  

And if students in the suburbs are chased to private schools, home school teaching, or municipal schools, what has been accomplished with the merger?

Memphis, by virtue of its population, is in the driver's seat of the merger and will shape the new system — one that will be the Shelby County School system for Memphis, all unincorporated areas, and any municipalities that can't afford their own systems.  

While the municipalities can form their own districts, the cost of that will surely be extremely high, and there is no guarantee at this point that the existing school buildings will follow the students. There are attendance districts that currently serve both municipalities and students from unincorporated areas, and the unincorporated students will need to have buildings in which to be educated. 

Here is a brief overview of what might work: a system of 150,000 students united under a chancellor (hired by the school board) with equal amounts of tax funding per student. The system could be subdivided into relatively autonomous districts that are as small as possible for maximum results. Purchasing economies, benchmarking, standards, food service, and transportation could be achieved through the chancellor's office as shared services.

To achieve cultural competency that makes learning relevant to students, each district would assess the needs of students in its purview and thereby set the curriculum. In some neighborhoods, students might extend their learning day until 5:30 p.m. The additional learning time could be well-used for professionally led homework help and deeper instruction.

In some districts, in fact, entry-level children might even need to be taught basic anatomy, letters, numbers, and other bare-bones concepts. In other districts, the children come to school already knowing these, so different levels would be appropriate for their students.

Each district would be divided into zones. Your child could pick any of the elementary, middle, or high schools in their zone to attend without additional paperwork. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this formula has worked well to create positive competition among the schools and the kind of environments that parents want.

By dint of a little paperwork reflecting appropriate requirements, students could transfer into zones in or out of their districts.  

The system might also include "focus schools" for the upper grades. One example might be a manufacturing/business/international-studies focus school. Another could be a medical/engineering/bio-medical institution that would run the gamut of job prep for various levels in this field. Yet another might be arts-focused, teaching not only performance but also associated business and production skills. Private dollars could help with all of the above.

I want everyone in Memphis and Shelby County to help make this new school system a success. We had an "embarrassment of riches" in the caliber of applicants for the school board. This is an amazing challenge we can meet ... together.

Heidi Shafer, a Republican, is one of three representatives on the Shelby County Commission from District 1, which contains both city and county precincts.

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