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Merger planning commission gets earfull at first tour stop

Dr. Reginald Green (right), a member of the Transition Planning Commission, said the first listening tour stop equipped him with information to take back to the next meeting. (Photo by Tarrin McGhee.)

by Tarrin McGhee
Special to Tri-State Defender

“With all due respect and sincerity my hope is that this plan does not succeed…I live here and my friends live here in Collierville not because of the square, or the holiday parade but because of the great school system.  This (schools merger) is the greatest challenge that we have faced. I don’t want to see Collierville fade away and become a spot on the map.”

– Collierville resident

The pews of Collierville United Methodist Church were packed on Tuesday night (Jan.10) with hundreds of people – parents and teachers included – determined to share their hopes and aspirations for and their concerns about a unified school district.

The meeting was the first of several stops the Transition Planning Commission (TPC) will make in various communities across the city and county over the next six months. It’s a listening tour to gather public input as the commission works to prepare recommendations to consolidate Memphis and Shelby County schools.

Following a brief presentation and overview on the TPC’s responsibilities, timeline for developing the schools merger plan and 10 guiding principles, TPC Chairperson Dr. Barbara Prescott made an earnest attempt to set the tone.

“We are here to see what you would like to see in the new system,” said Prescott. “We know what our charge is, but we don’t have answers to many questions yet…. We welcome all comments and opinions and want to hear from as many people as possible.”

Directing her attention to one of two lines that formed behind microphones positioned near the front of the church, Prescott opened the floor for feedback.

Despite a request for speakers to begin by describing their hopes for the unified school district, it became apparent with the second comment that the majority of those in attendance were more apprehensive than hopeful about the impending schools merger.

“This (Collierville) community is tremendous and we have a unique culture,” one Collierville resident said. “The one-size-fits-all system is doomed to failure.  We need sub districts that are semi-autonomous to serve specific needs of those in Collierville.”

The resounding applause, cheers and whistles that followed the speaker’s remarks foreshadowed a stream of comments that confirmed the broadly shared sentiment.

“It is a proven national best practice that smaller is better,” another resident later told members of the TPC. “We appreciate your invitation to join the mega school district but must respectively decline….

“The best way for you to proceed is to focus on the needs of students in the MCS mega district and allow Collierville and Germantown residents to go their own way and become their own school districts.”

Concerns about students and teachers being made to transfer schools, administrative leadership and education quality were among the primary fears expressed, with one parent questioning the ability of Memphis City Schools’ students to perform at the level of Shelby County Schools’ students.

“I’m worried about the curriculum....Shelby County students perform high and I don’t want for them to be punished, their academics to suffer, or standards to be brought down,” said the speaker.

Prescott consistently tried to keep the first round of comments focused on hopes, but optimistic views about the schools merger were few and far between in the early comments. But once the first hour elapsed, comments were made that indicated while many county residents are steadfast in their opposition to the schools consolidation, not all residents are – as one had stated earlier – hopeful that the merger does not succeed.

“My hope is that all children, no matter where they are dropped (in the unified district), are taught in a manner that will prepare them for college, said Larita Mitchell, Shelby County resident and parent. “My concern is that adults will get bogged down in the minutia.”

A Memphis City Schools counselor attempted to drive that point home. “My hope is that we take fear out of the equation. They have thrown us together now and we need to make the most of it.”

Nearing the close of the session, Prescott asked individuals still in line and in attendance to use the remaining time to share their aspirations for the schools merger.

The subsequent comments included a call for adding a parent sub-committee to the Shelby County Unified School Board to increase grassroots involvement. It also was suggested that the TPC spend a good deal of time analyzing expert opinions on urban education, and ensure that new state laws will not conflict with classroom policies.

TPC member and Collierville resident, Rickey Jeans, brought the session to a close. “Please keep in mind that everything that we are doing is in the best interest of kids,” Jeans said. “There will be other opportunities to engage in the planning process over the next six months. This is not a one-time deal.”

As the crowd dispersed, TPC members Dr. Reginald Green and Daniel Kiel were asked to share their reactions.

“I thought it went exceptionally well,” Green said. “The comments came across crystal clear, gave me insight and equipped me with information to take back to our meetings.”

Kiel said it’s clear that people are engaged and care about the work being done.

“I know it must be frustrating that we have so few concrete answers to the many uncertainties out there, but it’s probably better that way so that we can digest the feedback we are getting at these sessions before we get more specific with our plan,” said Kiel.

But for Fontina Burton, a language arts teacher at Collierville Middle School, the meeting format was frustrating.

“This whole night was a waste of time,” Burton said.

“I wanted answers…to find out what’s going to happen, not a pacifier. It’s 9 at night and they are pacifying us. I wish the meeting was different.”

(On Jan. 23, the Transition Planning Commission will hold a panel discussion at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. To find out when the listening tour will make a stop in your area, go to shelbycountytn.gov.)

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