by Michaelantonio Jones
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Houston High School's auditorium was sparsely populated with a collection of parents, teachers, bus drivers and other concerned citizens – all gathered to hear a presentation from the Transition Planning Commission.
While the focus of the Tuesday (July 10) evening community meeting was to inform citizens of the TPC's recommendations on how to structure a combined Memphis City Schools-Shelby County Schools system, the issue that most seemed to float to the top was money:
How much it will cost to carry out these recommendations?
How will the plan be paid for?
And what will it cost the employees and communities of both school systems?
TPC member Christine P. Richards stressed that the commission is not chartered to answer questions on municipal tax increases. It's draft plan has a $57 million budget gap and Richards pointed out that the TPC has recommended three funding options: ask the city of Memphis for funding by securing $55 million via a legal ruling for the maintenance of effort from fiscal year 2009 (strategically allocating $11 million over 5 years); ask the state for funding; and ask the county for funding.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, a TPC member, told the session's attendees that the City of Memphis is not required to pay anything. He emphasized that the plan by the TPC is only a recommendation and that it first must be approved by the state and then by the unified school board. Neither, he said, is required to accept the plan in full or as is.
A contingent of Shelby County School bus drivers at the session did not take kindly the fact that they have job security until the July 2013 merger date. In an effort to cut as little out of the classroom budget as possible, the TPC has recommended that the Memphis City Schools custodial services and SCS bus drivers be outsourced to save money.
Visibly upset, the SCS bus drivers decried the recommendation as being only about money and numbers. They said it did not take into account the livelihoods of the drivers or the human cost of such a decision, such as severing the relationships the drivers have forged with students over the decades, especially with the special needs students.
Claiming that the TPC chose cost of service over quality of service, the SCS bus drivers also asserted that Durham bus company, the company that MCS contracts with for bus services, doesn't care about the children, only dropping them off.
Mayor Luttrell said that while some of the decisions on what to cut were painful, the decision to cut was not taken lightly. The county only has so much money to spend, he said.
Luttrell and the other TPC members present stressed that sacrifices from other areas came at the cost of cutting very little from the classroom. Adding to the scenario was the backdrop of closing 21 schools in northwest and southwest Shelby County.
The TPC members declined to answer or evaded all questions posed to get them to weigh in on the political and legal battles being waged. They made it clear that their priority was to take the best of both districts and to combine them with the best ideas from around the country and the world to create a world class educational system for the children of Shelby County.
Tuesday's meeting was the second of four scheduled Regional Town Hall session. The first was held Monday (July 9) at the Teaching and Learning Academy (TLA) – Auditorium at 2485 Union Ave. A third session was set to play out Wednesday evening at Greater Community Temple – Church of God in Christ at 5151 Winchester Road, with the final town hall at Bridges, 477 North 5th St., from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday (July 12).