by Tarrin McGhee
Special to the Tri-State Defender
Unless you have just decided to poke your head up after hiding under a rock all of this year, you are aware that in March Memphis voters passed a referendum to merge city and county schools. And since that time, local, regional and national interest in the education of Memphis and Shelby County public school children has significantly increased.
Efforts to create and determine the best approach to sustain a unified public school district to provide education for approximately 150,000 students are underway.
Almost 12 months ago (Dec. 20, 2010), the Memphis City School Board Commissioners – in an unprecedented move – voted to relinquish the MCS charter. That action sparked a chain of events, including tense political battles and citizen-driven movements. In February, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into a law a controversial bill (sponsored by Republican State Sen. Mark Norris), outling stringent requirements for the transition process and impending schools merger.
Memphis voters (71,424 of them) went to the polls in March and 47,812 of them (67 percent) answered yes to this question: “Shall the Administration of the Memphis City School System, a Special School District, be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?”
A dizzying number of lawsuits were filed to expedite, delay and/or halt the merger. In August, U.S. Federal Court Judge Hardy Mays declared the dissolution of Memphis City Schools “for all purposes except the winding down of its operations and the transfer of administration to the Shelby County Board of Education” by the start of the 2013-14 school year. The ruling has since spurred action by local government leaders to adhere to new laws and ensure a successful merger takes place.
Perhaps most notably is the formation of two new bodies – the Shelby County Unified School Board (SCUSB) and the Transition Planning Commission (TPC), with a combined 44 members.
Regardless of individual – and sometimes directly opposing viewpoints on the merits of the schools merger, the reality is that it is going to happen, making it is vitally important for residents to know about those entrusted with the task of guiding us through it.
With approximately one year down and one year to go, The New Tri-State Defender introduces a new feature series on public education. It will include stories on key developments in planning the schools’ merger, in addition to in-depth interviews with members of the SCUSB and TPC respectively.
This week, the TSD features a conversation with Chair of the Transition Planning Commission, Barbara Prescott.
Tri-State Defender: Mrs. Prescott, please provide key highlights of your educational and professional background and examples of community involvement.
Barbara Prescott: I have a Ph.D in Counseling and Human Relations from Florida State College, a BA in Education and a Masters Degree in Guidance. I was a teacher in Memphis City Schools, and many years ago I also worked as a guidance counselor at Carver High School. I served on the Memphis City Schools Board for three terms, totaling 11 years – serving as president twice and vice president twice. My last term ended in December of 2002.That same year, I served as president of the Tennessee School Board Association.
Professionally, I operate a small private counseling practice and my husband and I have a consulting firm that does strategic planning and fundraising primarily with non-profits organizations. Our firm assisted in raising the $20 million in private funds that was a required match for the Gates Foundation Grant to Memphis City Schools.
TSD: Unlike many of your colleagues, this is not your first experience as a public servant. Why were you interested in serving in this role? Describe your thought process behind deciding to accept the appointment to the TPC and what you hope to accomplish.
B. Prescott: Our children attended Memphis City Schools so our public education system has always been a great interest of mine. To me, the importance of public education is unquestionable and I think it is the greatest success factor for our community and our country to have an educated workforce and population. Although I value alternatives, I think public education will always be the primary way.
In terms of the schools’ merger, initially I did not take a position, but I had ideas on what I thought would help it be successful…one of them is the value of single source funding. When you have everyone in the county acknowledging the importance of ensuring that all children are adequately educated, that seemed to be philosophically a way that we could best serve our community. From an economic standpoint, the city and suburbs are joined together. But still, I can identify with fears of change and the concerns that Memphis and Shelby County parents have for their children when they don’t know what will happen to the schools they have grown to love.
I want to be very careful and aware of ensuring that for schools that are doing well, we treat them with a great deal of deference. I’m very sensitive to what parents want whether they live in Collierville or north Memphis and I just want to be a part of building solutions. I want there to be good schools in all neighborhoods, and if that is not the case for some, let’s make it that way and keep it that way.
TSD: In October, you were voted in as chair of the Transition Planning Commission. Not only do you have a huge responsibility to facilitate discussion and build consensus, but you have to do it with 21 members who are also serving the community in this capacity for the first time. How has your experience been thus far? Are things coming together?
B. Prescott: Without hesitation, this is an extraordinary group of people and this really has been an amazing process. All members have served the community in a variety of ways, but not in a way that is open to public and media scrutiny. Several members have stepped up and are really using their individual talent and skills to move different areas along.
TSD: Can you describe the organizational structure of the TPC and the primary responsibilities of its members?
B. Prescott: As set out by state law, in the Norris-Todd bill, there are nine items that lay out exactly what we’re responsible for. Basically, we are charged with producing a plan for the schools merger that will be submitted to the SCUSB and Tennessee State Department of Education for approval. That plan will include an outline of the unified school district – how it will be organized, recommendations to address financial issues, personnel concerns, etc. Seven committees have been established around items that we have to put in the plan – Administrative, Educational/Academic Services/Plan, Communications, Finance, HR/Personnel, Logistics and Assessment.
TSD: What is the timeline for developing the transition plan?
B. Prescott: We are required to submit the plan for approval to the Shelby County Unified School Board and Tennessee Department of Education by late August, or early September of 2012. From October of this year until now we have used this time to get organized, form committees and engage in learning opportunities, which will continue throughout the timeline.
In January 2012, we will begin working with a consulting firm to help coordinate the planning process. There will be a lot of fact-finding and committee work to prepare recommendations to include in the plan through the end of June. From there, we’ll put final touches on before submitting the plan for review. From that point forward, we don’t really know what will happen – the SCUSB and Tennessee Department of Education may approve it or send some of it back to us. We have been appointed to serve throughout the whole merger process and or until our work is thoroughly completed.
TSD: In your own words, what are the ideal outcomes for a successful school merger?
B. Prescott: To create an outstanding, top notch school district that will drive attention to our metro area, to create a better equality of life in community and better economic standing for more of our population, and to become one of the best places to live, not only in Tennessee, but in the Country. A lot of that has to do with schools.
TSD: Can you provide a brief update on progress and describe any immediate next steps?
B. Prescott: Up until this point, we have focused primarily on putting together the committee structure, deciding which ones we needed and what members would be best suited to serve.
On Dec. 15, we will hold a full commission vision session to look at our committee process – how they work and establish guiding principles and objectives.
We have created a relationship with the Shelby County Schools Foundation to hire a consulting firm that will help to assist our committees in fact-finding, data-gathering and developing recommendations to include in the plan.
We have also done some speaking engagements and as our committees start to work, we will be rolling out a community engagement plan that will involve internal and external communications. This will be a key piece in developing the transition plan. We recognize our plan is a plan of recommendations, and community engagement is a major part of what we are doing.
TSD: How can the community stay updated, engaged and/or get involved?
B. Prescott: Shelby county government has graciously offered the support of staff and the use of their website to help the community track progress. Recordings of our meetings will be available there and all of our meetings are open to the public. If there are organizations or individuals that wish to have us speak to them directly, we’re happy to do that as well.
Soon we will begin coordinating listening tours and town hall type meetings that will help to provide the community with more information and opportunities to ask questions and learn more about the process.
Transition Planning Commission charge
The charge of the Transition Planning Commission is to develop a comprehensive transition plan to guide the consolidation of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools. System. In developing the transition plan, the following items must be considered: administrative organization; ensure that there will be no diminution of educational services; plans to transfer assets, liabilities, and disposition of bonded indebtedness; preserving pension rights of teaching and nonteaching employees; preserving the existing tenure rights and benefits to teaching and nonteaching employees; appropriate plans for contributions by municipalities to the county for operations of unified school system; and any other matters deemed pertinent by the planning commission.