Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hart and Pickler spar over school merger

   Just one day after panelists on both sides of the charter surrender debate aired their differences on WREG-TV, News Channel 3, Memphis City Schools board commissioner Tomeka Hart and Shelby County Schools board president David Pickler tried themselves to separate fact from fiction in the ongoing charter surrender brouhaha in a one-on-one televised debate Wednesday on WMC-TV, Channel 5.
   The format of this debate was different. Hart and Pickler each stood at a podium on a stage at Mid-town's Playhouse on the Square and answered pointed questions that were culled from the general public, with moderators, Channel 5's Joe Birch and Ursula Madden, fielding them to the debaters.
   Since MCS voted Dec. 20 to surrender its charter, and now that a referendum is set March 8 for city voters to decide if they want the Shelby County Board of Education to absorb MCS, questions still abound. Will the merger work? What is the motivation?
   Hart and Pickler sought to answer some of those questions in a sparring match that either clarified their position on charter surrender or confused those still looking for answers. A sample of some of the questions, answers and rebuttals is printed below:

Question: As a representative of the Memphis City Schools board, why do you think surrendering the charter and forcing consolation will work?

Hart: It's really important to understand how we got here. The Memphis City School board didn't ask to be here. We were actually responding ... to an action by the Shelby County Schools to create a special school district. That has been kind of lost in the conversation ... the creation of a special school district SCS has been fighting for 10 years. Memphis has been able to fight it legislatively, but that battle changed in November 2010. Shelby County made it clear that they were going to aggressively push for a special school district. So in order to stop that was a motion to surrender our charter.

Pickler (rebuttal): Once again, we have a disagreement on this issue. Actually, it goes back as far back as 1990. Because in 1990, the city school board first considered the option of surrendering their charter. By only a vote of 5-4 did that fail. That you may recall when people in suburban Shelby County even talked about the concept of creating Neshoba County. For 20 years, the Shelby County Board of Education has fought to try to avert a surrender, a hostile surrender, by Memphis City school board by creating special school district status.

Q: What was the original motivation for seeking special status for the Shelby County School district?

Pickler: What we've been looking for over the past 20 years is an opportunity to maintain the legacy of excellence we've had in Shelby County schools. For five years in a row, we've earned straight A's on the Tennessee Report Card. And we're very proud of that honor. Consider if the shoe was on the other foot. If you were the Memphis City School board and earned straight A's over the past five years and you're looking at the possibility, maybe even the probability, of a hostile takeover by the Shelby County Board of Education, take away all of your control, and the school system in Shelby County that perhaps is failing, and earning some of the lowest grades in the state, that's the situation we've been dealing with. We're one of the highest performing districts in the state. MCS unfortunately has had severe struggles.We're attempting to maintain our independence, autonomy, and that legacy of excellence.

Hart (rebuttal): I always love to hear that fantasy world that Shelby County is such a perfect school system when the truth of the reality ... and you can look at the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card ... there are 15 to 20 points that separate the school systems. Shelby County has no score above 60, and they're considered A's and we have 30s and 40s in MCS. So there's not this large gap that somehow people believe that there are between the two systems. So truthfully, we're both struggling, and it's time that we be for real about that. I don't know what happened in 1990. I wasn't on the school board.

Q: Why should Memphis voters support surrendering the charter when no plan has been put in place to explain it to the public?

Hart: That's the time now to put a plan in place. Mr. Pickler and Shelby County can put a plan in place whenever they choose. There are many people calling for a plan. As a matter of fact, Shelby County is the only body that hasn't agreed to a plan. ... I remind us again that we're responding to an attack. We did not ask to come to this fight. In that response to say we're rushing. Well, we wouldn't be rushing if Mr. Pickler had taken special school district off the table. We wouldn't be here. So he wouldn't do that. So shame on us for fighting back.

Pickler (rebuttal): Our board of education on three separate occasions took the issue of special school district off the table. We said we would not pursue that for a lengthy period of time in order for the two school boards to work together. This board of education in Memphis city had the opportunity to pursue a course of consolidation that wouldn't involve 15 months to two years, to take the time to answer the question, to give the people of the city of Memphis the opportunity to have a plan so that all these unanswered questions would not be before us.

Q: Does the quality of the education receive depends on the board leadership and its organizational structure or demographics of its student body?

Pickler: In both districts, we have very diverse populations. Shelby County Schools has one of the most diverse populations in the state. Over the course of the past 10 years, that diversity has increased. And despite the fact that a number of students are suffering from impoverished conditions, our test scores have done nothing but increased. We believe that having the right kind of curriculum, having the right kind of plan for dedicated teachers, the right kind of leadership and strategic plan, does make a difference.

Hart (rebuttal): If you look at the demographics of Shelby County Schools that look like Memphis -- like Northaven Elementary, Millington High School -- you'll see that their performance mirrors. It is about economic disadvantage and I would like to think it was that simple. But I would ask David to look his own report card on his schools where the demographics mirror Memphis, and look at where Memphis demographics mirror Shelby County and we out-perform and perform as well as they do with those demographics.

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