“Everybody is afraid of change, and everybody is scrambling around afraid because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rickey Jeans, a lifelong Collierville resident.
by Tarrin McGhee
Special to the Tri-State Defender
The Transition Planning Commission (TPC) has roughly four months left to develop a plan to merge Memphis and Shelby County Schools.
Last year, The New Tri-State Defender introduced a new profile series designed to keep readers informed and engaged throughout the planning process, and to provide an outlet for those charged with this immense responsibility to share their perspectives on new advancements, and offer insight into key developments.
This installment features interviews with TPC members Dr. Reginald Green and Rickey Jeans. The discussion touched on myriad aspects related to the transition process, including ongoing attempts to halt the Commission’s progress; which superintendent would be best suited to lead the new unified school system, and what parents who are concerned about their children’s academic future can do to protect it.
|TPC member Rickey Jeans said, “If we leave the politicians out of it, there is a possibility that we will do well.” (Photos by Shirley Jackson)|
“I understand that parents are scared because we’re talking about your kids’ lives, their livelihood, and their future.”
Jeans wants to encourage residents within the city limits and in the outer-county to keep an open mind about the schools merger, and the transition planning process.
“The big picture (to merge schools) has been planned way before the TPC was formed, and now it’s just being played out,” he said.
“If we leave the politicians out of it, there is a possibility that we will do well.”
The rules of engagement
Over the past several months, the mayors of Collierville, Germantown, Bartlett, Lakeland and Arlington have been leading a united effort to form separate school districts in their respective municipalities.
All have vocalized clear intentions to remove barriers that prevent them from proceeding with plans to assume local control and authority of suburban schools. Often they have cited the need to respond to the concerns that many of their constituents hold about merging city and county school systems as a driving factor.
This past Sunday (March 25), Germantown residents held a rally in support of a separate municipal school system, drawing a sizeable crowd that included parents and children.
The rally followed an announcement made by the Shelby County Election Commission last week that municipal schools will not appear on a ballot anytime soon.
Election Commission members backed away from their initial decision to allow residents in the five municipalities to vote on a May 10 referendum to determine whether to move forward with plans to form separate school districts. This after an opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper on March 20 concluded that the existing statewide ban should remain in effect until the merger is complete.
Cooper’s opinion – which references the Norris-Todd bill enacted in 2011 to mandate requirements for the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools by August 2013 – also states that any further action to establish or create new or special school districts is prohibited according to state law.
Meanwhile, members of the Tennessee General Assembly are considering a new bill co-sponsored by House Majority Leader, Gerald McCormick, and Senate Majority Leader, Mark Norris that would lift the ban on creating new school districts by January 1, 2013. McCormick has previously indicated the bill was introduced to support Senator Norris’ efforts to decrease the amount of time that suburban communities have to wait before the creation of new school districts is legally allowed.
“I’m not for the law change,” said Jeans. “The politicians have come up with a plan to get reelected again…what they are looking at is satisfying a small pocket of the community.
“It’s hard to think about a small section of the community when the total city is struggling. We have too many kids that need to be educated…they all need the opportunity to learn,” he said.
“I heard someone say recently that we’re preparing our kids for professions that we don’t know or understand right now,“ he continued. “That’s a hard task, but we can’t leave anyone behind.”
‘Access to knowledge’
Jeans believes that the Multiple Achievement Paths Model administrative structure for the Shelby County Unified Schools will help to alleviate parental concerns that their children will become lost in a large system with approximately 150,000 students.
Dr. Green, chair of the Transition Planning Commission’s assessment sub-committee, and professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Memphis, echoed Jeans’ sentiments.
|TPC member Dr. Reginald Green said, “My major concern as an educator is access to knowledge…every child should have access to knowledge.”|
“What I embrace about this plan is a variety of choices. My major concern as an educator is access to knowledge….every child should have access to knowledge.”
The next step for TPC members is to develop academic programs and activities that will support educational themes and concepts that have been approved to flesh out recommendations that will be included in the transition plan.
Earlier this year, the TPC held a series of listening sessions to garner community input, and to give parents an opportunity to voice their hopes, aspirations and fears for the new unified school district.
According to Dr. Green, an overwhelming number of parents’ concerns, especially those who reside in Shelby County, can be categorized into three main areas: who will lead the district, transportation, and the quality of education that students will receive.
Who will lead?
Asked if they could envision Memphis City Schools Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash emerging as the unified district superintendent, neither Dr. Green nor Jeans signed off exclusively on Cash or Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken in the top leadership role for the unified district.
“That is a question that would be answered by the administrative organization committee…they will come with a recommendation as to how the school district will be led,” said Green.
“Right now there has been no formal discussion about that, but I think the issue centers around whether or not we keep one of the two superintendents that we have or whether we go out and get someone from the outside that is new to both systems.”
Jeans said both Cash and Aitken are very capable.
“I can envision either one of them or I can envision a third person coming in. I think (the latter) would lessen animosity between the city and county,” he said.
“If fresh blood was here, I really think there would be no animosity on either side. That’s no disrespect to either gentleman because they are both outstanding people.”
Delay or push on?
On Thursday night (March 29), members of the Transition Planning Commission are expected to resume discussion about the possibility of delaying the merger. David Pickler, former chair of the Shelby County Schools Board and a fellow TPC member, introduced a motion earlier this month to allow an additional year of planning time for the commission to fulfill their responsibilities, and to expand public dialogue.
Green said the large sentiment is not to delay and to “move full steam ahead to complete our work.”
“I think that we (TPC) have a good head start, and my sentiment is that there is something in this plan for everyone.”
“I think this county should unite, and I think this county should unite around education. If we are going to be a prosperous city, then educators must lead the way,” Green said.
“There’s no reason for having two separate systems,” said Jeans. “There are outstanding things in the city (schools) and outstanding things in the county. Now we have the opportunity to merge those outstanding things and give everybody the same equal footing.
“If we can get everyone on the same page and take away the fears, we can do something that can be the model for the world. Five to 10 years from now, Dr. Green and myself will be going to tell people in other parts of the world how we did it.”