Wednesday, January 26, 2011

School merger still leaves questions unanswered

   After Tuesday's (Jan. 25) school merger debate on WREG-TV, News Channel 3, the proponents who favor the dissolution of Memphis City Schools and the opponents who'd rather keep city schools separate from Shelby County Schools were deadlocked once again over their philosophical differences and a resolution to the stalemate.
   What transpired at the debate -- as has happened since MCS board commissioners Tomeka Hart and Martavius Jones first dropped the bombshell to surrender MCS's charter -- still leaves those with a stake in public education in Memphis and Shelby County somewhat confused, even as the March 8 referendum vote nears -- unless they're already for or against SCS taking over the administrative functions from MCS without further nudging.
   Once again, SCS board chairman David Pickler made it abundantly clear that non-Memphians won't cower to MCS's "hostile surrender" of its charter without a fight. He joined two others as panelists opposing the charter surrender: Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy and Rev. LaSimba Gray, pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church.
   On the flip side of the argument, those who support the charter surrender -- panelists City Councilman Shea Flinn, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, and Jones -- argued their point just as mightily that a charter surrender would not be the deathblow to the district's 11,000 teachers and support staff, and its 105,000 students, as it has been rumored.
   In a direct question to Pickler, Hardaway asked, "Do you plan to fire 11,000 people on March 9 (if voters pass the referendum on March 8)?"
    "That would be a completely irresponsible comment for anyone to make," he said, adding, "It is not our intention to do anything to harm any child in Memphis City Schools. However, we would have to take a look at the economic situation. We would have to see what changes that need to be made."
   Although Gray sat relatively quiet on the side with those who oppose the charter surrender, he noted unequivocally that his greatest fear would be the loss of jobs to privatization. "The administrative staff of Memphis City Schools would be in question," he said, including "the initiatives of Dr. (Kriner) Cash."
   Pickler said there are fundamental and philosophical differences between the way SCS has operated and the way MCS has operated, such as MCS's in-house custodial workers versus SCS's outsourcing of custodial workers.
   He pointed out that SCS has had greater success in the district compared to MCS. "We've had a strategic plan, a tactical plan," he said. "Ten years ago, our school system didn't have the same level of report card as we do now.
   "As a district, we have challenges every single day. We have a very significant population within the school district who are economically challenged. We've been able to overcome that by placing our resources in the right areas."
   Chris Peck, editor of The Commercial Appeal and one of two questioners, responded to Pickler's assertion with a question: "If you've had this great success with planning in a diverse school district, why wouldn't you be able to build on that success?"
   "We've already begun working with the staff of Memphis City Schools to ensure what can be done, will be done," he said, noting that hundreds of questions still need to be answered "and cannot be resolved until it comes up in a court of law."
   For example: What would happen to charter schools and optional schools if a merger occurs, since SCS doesn't operate either one? WREG political analyst Otis Sanford asked Jones. "There are opportunities in charter schools. If they are effectively raising student achievement, they can use them in Shelby County. If we're talking about optional schools -- if they're successful -- they can use them in Shelby County."
   In a kind of dig at Pickler and SCS's purported success in student achievement based on the district's report card, Jones added, "We're purporting that 55 is exemplary and excellent. To purport to parents and children that you're performing exemplary and you're getting 55 out of 100, we're telling our kids a falsehood."
   In back and forth exchanges, Pickler was singled out the most because of his public stance against charter surrender. He has been the most vocal and unswayed by those on the other side seeking dissolution of city schools. He came to the debate with questions too.
    "If we are trying to build a unified system and come together for the best interest of all children, then why are we ... denying 30 percent of Shelby County a voice in the process?"
   He said suburbia should have a voice in the matter since Shelby County contributes 40 percent of MCS's funding.
   Jones responded forthrightly, saying, "Because of the strategy you tried, Mr. Pickler, with 30 percent of Shelby County trying to seek special school district status, you excluded 70 percent of the rest of Shelby County."
   Flinn said it all boils down to MCS's right to determine its own fate. "If Germantown chooses to plot a municipal district course, they should have that right of self determination."
   He said if Germantown, for example, gets to vote on whether Memphians pay an extra tax, "then I expect to vote on the Germantown mayor. I expect to vote on the Shelby County school board and probably the board of alderman too."
   Flinn argued for a unified school district and unified community. "We need to revamp education to make it better for every kid," he said.
   Jones was succinct in one of several exchanges with Pickler. "Before Shelby County pursued their separatist effort to create a special school district, we wouldn't have had no need to do this."

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