by Tarrin McGhee
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
The Transition Planning Commission (TPC) is convinced that it has come up with a schools merger plan that fits the needs of all the affected students.
That conviction was reflected by the unanimous vote (June 14) in favor of the first draft of the transition plan to guide the merger of Memphis and Shelby County Schools.
"Our desire is that all children will be educated well, and we believe we have a plan that can do that," said TPC Chairwoman Barbara Prescott at a post-vote media briefing.
"Until we know otherwise, the district contains 147, 000 students, but we are very well aware that state law allows for municipalities to create their own districts," said Prescott. "We do anticipate that it's very likely that some, and maybe all, will vote to have their own, but we believe that this plan works whether it's 147,000 or 110 or 120 or any variation in between."
It's a position that results from six months of gathering community input on how the unified school district should be designed, fact finding and researching, and exploring best practices for schools consolidation.
Now comes the next phase – presenting the fruits of the TPC's labor to members of the Shelby County Board of Education and Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman for review later this month.
Improving student success
The planning commission's proposed administrative structure for the unified district – the Multiple Achievement Paths Model – will include six regions with 20-30 schools in each. It also accounts for charter schools and those zoned to the Achievement School District.
To ensure all school leaders are held accountable for student success, the transition plan calls for the creation of a central planning and management office and "i-zone" to foster innovation. A district-wide school transfer policy will also be implemented to promote school choice.
Additional recommendations to improve academic performance include doubling the number of students in AP classes and dual-enrollment programs, providing more staff for children with special education needs, new measurers to improve teacher effectiveness, and offering universal pre-kindergarten.
Universal Pre-K is among the top priorities to address poor academic achievement rates in the two school systems. In Memphis, four percent of students are deemed college ready compared to 20 percent in Shelby County, according to figures released in 2011 by the Tennessee Department of Education.
"Anybody that has studied the data on the impact of Pre-K for young children understands how important a step and investment that is," TPC member Jim Boyd said at the press briefing. "The implications of that for the future of educational achievement for all our students is really significant."
Operations and finance
Maximizing resources to allow for new investments to improve school and career readiness in the unified district is a key success factor in the merger.
The transition plan projects a starting financial gap of $160 million. TPC members say that only half that amount is merger-related, and note that the projected total operating budget for fiscal year 2014 is less than the current combined budgets of both Memphis and Shelby County school districts.
"Always keeping in mind our guiding principle – save what we can, fund what we need – we did recommend $15 million worth of investments that came through educational services and organizational structure, and we were required by law to invest $18 million in personnel," said Prescott.
"We were able to identify savings and efficiencies in excess of $90 million, but that still left us still with a $57 million gap that will have to be addressed."
To close that gap, the TPC proposes that school board members should seek additional revenue from the city and state. The planning commission also recommends continuing to work to recoup the outstanding $55 million judgment made against the city of Memphis following the City Council's 2008 decision to cut school funding.
To reduce operational expenditures, the TPC recommends outsourcing transportation and janitorial services, improving purchasing practices and school-level energy usage, and closing 21 schools with poor-student population and performance. Personnel cuts are mentioned in the transition plan as a last resort to balance the budget, but are not being recommended by the TPC.
Making it work
The TPC is clear about this: creating a unified budget and opening a transition office, with hired staff to focus on implementing the merger plan, are critical to ensure progress.
The question that is on everyone's mind is who will lead the unified district?
The transition plan does not include any reference to preferred candidates for the top job, although district leadership is a primary area of concern for planning commission members and community residents across Memphis and Shelby County.
The commission recommends that the superintendent be named as soon as possible and no later than this fall.
Last week, the Shelby County Unified School Board voted to not renew the contract of MCS Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash, which leaves SCS Supt. John Aitken in the running, although he is not a shoe-in for the position.
The unified board will begin discussions this week about whether to conduct local or national searches to select a new superintendent.
The TPC's final meeting is scheduled for July 26. In coming weeks, members have scheduled a series of community meetings and events to solicit feedback on the first draft of their schools merger plan.
The transition plan goes before members of the Shelby County Unified School Board on Tuesday (June 26) and the Tennessee Department of Education on Thursday (June 28), allowing time to review and incorporate comments before submitting the completed plan by the August deadline.
"The fall is the beginning of this process so there's no room for error here," Prescott said. "We're hoping that the school board can have this plan approved in early September and start this process according to our benchmarks."
(For full details on the schools merger transition plan, go to www.ourvoiceourschools.com.)