by Tarrin McGhee
Special to Tri-State Defender
William “Billy” Orgel – native Memphian, entrepreneur and business executive – serves as chairman of the 23-member body now responsible for governing the consolidated Memphis and Shelby County School systems that are set to merge in August 2013. His conversation with the New Tri-State Defender is the second installment in the newspaper’s periodic series on public education.
New Tri-State Defender: Why were you interested in serving as a member of the Shelby County Unified School Board (SCUSB)?
William “Billy” Orgel: I got involved because the future of our community rests on the (schools merger) outcome. We owe it to our children, who are blameless in all of this, to provide education that will help them succeed on national and international levels. Memphis is a wonderful place to live – I was raised here and my kids are being raised here – but in order to make it a place that others want to live and do business, we’re going to have to fix our educational system.
TSD: Prior to joining the SCUSB, what was your position on the schools merger and what are your thoughts now?
Orgel: I didn’t take a position one way or another. My position was, “I wonder why we can’t work this out?” I wasn’t necessarily certain that we had to get to this point and the outcome that we have now didn’t have to be. No one in the city was asking for a merger and no one in the county was asking for a merger. The reason we merged was because of a defense measure by MCS. I hoped that the parties involved could have set down, worked out their differences and future funding issues and made it work. If we could turn the clock back and adults worked together, we could have had a different outcome. But that’s water under the bridge now. We can’t turn the ship around. It is what it is. This is what we have.
The schools consolidation is kind of a forced marriage but we need to take this opportunity and make the most of it by looking for best practices and do away with what’s not working in order to build a superior education system for Shelby County. Every time we make a decision or open our mouths about schools, we need to pause and think, “Is it in the best interest of the students?” If everybody did that, our students will be a lot better off.
TSD: The SCUSB is comprised of 23 members who were at one point often on opposing sides of the merger issue. As chair, how do you help ensure members are now working cohesively to achieve common goals?
Orgel: It’s a lot easier than you may think. We’ve had very few contentious issues, very healthy debate, and votes don’t always line up with this old board and that old board. Two great examples where we were near unanimous are the recent votes against school vouchers and when the board voted to reject 14 charter schools that both city and county staff’s recommended.
Also, both systems recently agreed on a legislative agenda to meet with elected officials to let them know what the school board is doing. I’m very proud of the way the board operates, every committee is a mixture of different members from both (city and county) school systems.
TSD: What are the top priorities for the SCUSB, short-term and long-term?
Orgel: To begin aligning our school systems into one. Right now, we’re governing two school districts with different policies and procedures. With help of the TPC (Transition Planning Commission), we will have a process laid out for orderly combination. Long-term, we want to be recognized as a leading school district across the country for our work in bridging the achievement gap between high- and low-income students and raising the gap collectively for everybody.
TSD: What are the main challenges in working to bring the two systems together?
Orgel: Our major challenge is with communications with the Transition Planning Commission (TPC) and staying abreast of the new work that they are doing. We are hopeful that the (schools merger) plan they present to us is one that lets all people, including municipalities, weigh in on how to protect the best interests of all children moving forward.
TSD: What are your thoughts on the schools consolidation progress thus far and performance of parties involved in leading the process? Also, how do you feel about recent measures taken by local and state leaders to improve public education overall?
Orgel: Members of the SCUSB have really jumped into their new job and are making an earnest attempt to work in the new system. The TPC is also doing great. Led by Dr. Barbara Prescott, they have done a great job of getting to the issues and tackling them one by one to bring us a (schools merger) plan for approval.
Regarding recent measures…I’m glad to see that Gov. (Bill) Haslam is taking initiative to look into private vouchers and giving thoughtful consideration to if we’re going to have that program. The Achievement School District (ASD) will also be a big issue. I think ASD could be great for our school system because of the opportunity to lift up some of our lowest performing schools. And state leadership on this with Chris Barbic (superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District) is good because it won’t take so much of the SCUSB’s time and attention. I think it will have a positive impact and down the road when they are turned back over, we will have more high-performing schools in our community.
TSD: What is the SCUSB doing to alleviate lingering community fears and concerns about the consolidation of city and county schools?
Orgel: Our community engagement committee led by Vanecia Kimbrow is an important piece. I think the information that will come out will give people comfort that neighborhood schools will stay intact, and that staff for those schools, for the most part, will stay intact. But we must recognize there will be some changes when we merge the two systems together. If it makes sense because of demographic and population trends to close some schools, we’re going to have to do that and maybe build new ones. We will have to give careful consideration to the best use of funds and provide services and learning opportunities for all students.
TSD: Why do you think it is important for residents to stay engaged during this process?
Orgel: Now that we know the schools merger is going to happen, everyone needs to be involved because we’re talking about our future. What we have here is an opportunity to remake our community. Only four percent of children in MCS are college ready and that is not acceptable. We need to make sure children get the tools needed to succeed in the workforce and that they are capable of going to college. If we want to attract employers here, we have to have a skilled workforce. That starts with Pre-K education through college. We need to collectively lift up our community and education is (the) key to that.
TSD: Are there any final thoughts on the schools merger that you would like to share with our readers and the broader community?
Orgel: Even if you don’t have children, you have grandkids, friends who have kids, etc., that are in public schools and we need the community to hold us accountable to ensure that kids get a good education and a better future. If we fail to get it right here, the impact on the future of our community will be severe. We need everyone to hope and pray for the best possible (schools merger) outcome and the strength to continue to do the right thing in order to create a bright future for all children.