The School-Merger Front(s) 

The fat, as they say, is in the fire — several huge chunks of it. Before this week is out, the Transition Planning Commission created by the ad hoc Norris-Todd Act of 2011 will have met with the mayors of Shelby County's municipalities, all of whom are secessionists in relation to the ongoing city/county school merger.

Up to the last couple of weeks, the TPC had been diligently going about the business of putting together a framework for a common school district consisting of all the entities of public education in the former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools systems. The 21 members of a Uniform Shelby County School Board — consisting of the former SCS and MCS board members, plus seven additional members appointed by the Shelby County Commission — have been conducting meetings simultaneously. This board, like the TPC, has comported itself like the collective voice of a common entity.

Both the Transition Planning Commission and the Uniform School Board have been capably led — by Barbara Prescott and Billy Orgel, respectively — and the members of both groups have applied themselves conscientiously, availing themselves of numerous sources and copious amounts of expert testimony. The board even ventured to tackle one of the ticklish problems of the present — charter schools — turning down the applications for 17 proposed new charter schools (to go with 26 already inherited from MCS and one which the state, in effect, forced a reluctant SCS to approve). That rejection has been appealed to state treasurer David Lillard, who must decide if the financial rationale for denying the applications is valid.

The issue of charter schools is one of the anomalies in the current mix. Most people see two sides to the ongoing controversy — suburbs vs. the city. Yet the predominantly Republican members of the old SCS board had vehemently opposed the charter-school concept now being vigorously pushed by the Republican administration of Governor Bill Haslam. The fact of charters, in addition to that of the state's new Achievement School District to administer failing schools, complicates the merger issue enormously.

What all parties are facing now is the near certainty that the suburbs will create their own separate school districts, as Norris-Todd permits. Clearly, they are insisting on what they are calling a "path to autonomy" that goes way beyond the concept of a decentralized chancery model that the TPC had been hopefully nursing.

As a further sign of the ongoing muddle, Norris-Todd called for the election this August of seven permanent school board members, and that's the number which federal Judge Hardy Mays, who has jurisdiction over the various merger issues, has approved. The Shelby County Commission has voted to increase the number of school board members to 13, however, and Mays had to schedule a hearing this week to try to unravel things. In the meantime, the election commission has been unable to issue petitions.

And there are new questions raised by Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell (see Viewpoint, p. 17) as to whether county funds would be available to any new suburban schools.

The fact is, the larger schools issue is in limbo, and all of us along with it.

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