October 2011 Archives

MERGER BASICS. Or, merger for (not so) dummies

Because we still hear and sense confusion from even the most informed, intelligent readers in the community, I'm going to put together a post that spells out the basics of schools consolidation and try to keep the post near the top of the blog. Below is a description of the various components of consolidation, as spelled out in U.S. District Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays Aug. 8 ruling and the consent decree authorizing a settlement between the plaintiffs (Shelby County Schools as an institution and five individual board members as intervenors) and the defendants (Shelby County Commission, Memphis City schools, Memphis City Council, City of Memphis and Memphis Education Association as an intervening party).  

Merger must be completed in time for the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. Because the fiscal year for school systems starts July 1, the hard deadline is in effect June 30, 2013, for Memphis City Schools administrations and operations to be absorbed by Shelby County. Essentially, it's a merging of the approximately 105,000 Memphis City Schools students with the approximately 45,000 Shelby County Schools students. It's unclear if the 52 suburban schools and 200 city schools would  become 252 schools, or if some schools would close. It's also unclear if the 3,200 suburban teachers and 6,600 city teachers would automatically form a 9,800-teacher corps or if that number would diminish. There are many redundancies in the higher administration of both systems.  

MCS and SCS remain separate for the next two school years, still operating with their current superintendent and separate administrations.

The Shelby County Commission was authorized to create seven seats for the Shelby County Board of Education that will survive after merger is completed. Those seven do immediately join the nine people who were elected to the Memphis City Schools board and seven from suburban Shelby County Schools to form a 23-member board. That board will meet Monday to elect officers and set board procedures. The 23-member board consists of 14 Memphis residents and seven suburban residents, 14 men to nine women and 12 black members and 11 white members.

Public Chapter 1, or the state law known as Norris-Todd, called for creation of a merger transition commission to create a comprehensive plan for merging the two systems. There were 18 appointments to that commission, with five chosen by MCS, five by SCS, five by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and one each from the state's top three elected officials (Gov. Bill Haslam, State Sen. Speaker Ron Ramsey, and State House Speaker Beth Harwell). Luttrell, SCS chairman David Pickler and MCS chairman Martavius Jones also are on the team. The transition team consists of 11 suburban residents to 10 Memphis residents, 15 men and six women, 14 white members and seven black members. It elected former MCS president Barbara Prescott as its chairman, former SCS board member and superintendent Fred Johnson as vice-chairman and made longtime SCS building operations chief Richard Holden its treasurer. Tennessee Stand For Children executive director Kenya Bradshaw is secretary.

Ultimately, the unified school board has authority and responsibility over all aspects of the merger. It also has full power over the next two school years to authorize the administration of MCS or SCS to make changes, by a majority vote of the school board members. The transition commission has set a goal of summer 2012 to deliver a merger plan, but the board ultimately must authorize the components of any plan.

Though Judge Mays ruled that Public Chapter 1 (or Norris-Todd) is valid, he very clearly stated that he did determine if the clause allowing for creation of municipal school districts and/or special school districts in Shelby County is constitutional. That issue, he said, is not yet "ripe" and would require extensive legal briefing. However, the municipalities in suburban Shelby County are aggressively exploring their options and expected to test that aspect of the law, which also states a municipality cannot apply for a district until after merger of the unified system has been completed.

After the jump, see the consent decree as ordered by Judge Mays. Click here for his full Aug. 8 ruling:
Because of space issues in the print edition, our story on the transition commission meeting Thursday night did not make it into print. We are working on a more comprehensive follow, but I wanted to make this available to those interested in the gist of the meeting. ZM.

With Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy watching and taking notes, Shelby County's schools merger transition planning commission on Thursday evening shared the hopes and fears they carry into a planning process that chairwoman Barbara Prescott said soon will begin "in earnest".

Saying that he believed "this is a one shot opportunity to run all of it a lot better" and that "everyone can benefit,"  Memphis philanthropist and investor Staley Cates nonetheless acknowledged "not everybody believes that."

His fear: "That we get stomped out early by the zero-sum types. If we have a win at the city, that does not have to come out of the county's hide. And the county wins really big if our city school kids are educated better because we all are in one pot."

Former county commissioner Tommy Hart, a Collierville real-estate investor, asked his fellow team members to imagine a marker erected decades in the future honoring their work in creating a stronger, more functional metropolitian community.

"We are either going to make or break the Memphis metro area with what comes out of this group," Hart said. "And you can count that as a hope and a fear."

Several commissioners spoke of a growing gulf between "east" and "west," the suburbs and the big city, the "haves" and "have nots." They also confronted the reality that municipalities like Germantown are aggressively exploring how they can form their own school systems and opt out of whatever the commission creates.

"I'm afraid what we're going to be looking at is one big wasteland and potentially one sort of semi-prosperous area that is not sustainable," said John Smarrelli, a Germantown resident and the president of Christian Brothers University. "If we don't worry about the entire area, this community ... will die slowly, but it will die."

Outgoing BRIDGES president Jim Boyd and former Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler were among those who pushed for thinking bigger than just merging the Memphis City Schools system with the county's currently suburban-only system.

Boyd shared his hope that the system would become a national model.

Said Pickler: "It doesn't have to look like every other school system in the world."

In commisison business, Fred Johnson, a former SCS superintendent and board member and former MCS administrator, told the commission that four firms had responded to a request for proposal to help manage the commission's work.

Two of those firms will be in town next week for a meeting with Johnson's subcommittee at BRIDGES near Downtown, and he said would wait to divulge details of the proposals until all firms are interviewed.

"We are in some pretty serious negotiations," Johnson said.

The commission meets again Thursday at 4:30 at the Shelby County Code Enforcement offices on Mullins Station Road.

The transition commission website can be accessed at 1.usa.gov/TCsite. For additional CA coverage of education and the merger, go to bit.ly/SchoolsInTransition.

Landing page created for local education news, information

We've created a landing page for news and information related to schools and education, at this point focused mostly on Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools and the merger transition process. Eventually, education news about private schools in the area and public schools outside of Shelby County will also find a home on the site, which for now we are calling "Schools In Transition."

Check it out here: Schools in Transition. We will be adding more data and documents, and also following developments as suburban cities explore whether to add municipal schools.

Shelby County's schools merger transition planning commission will hold its third working meeting at 4:30 p.m. today at the county's code enforcement offices at Shelby Farms (6465 Mullins Station Road). It is scheduled to run until 7:30.

The agenda will include a report and possible action on hiring an outside consulting firm to assist with the 21-member commission's work creating a plan for merging Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools in time for the 2013-14 school year.

The RFP (here is the link) calls for, among other things, the consultant to assist "in understanding the current landscape of MCS and SCS, as well as analyzing best practices in other similar school system consolidations. Sound research should inform final recommendations to ensure close alignment with the Transition Planning Commission's mission and demonstrate a continued focus on improving student achievement."

Also on the agenda are committee assignments, discussion of last week's two-hour meeting with the leaders in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County schools merger and what as "Beginning our discussion - commission hopes and fears."

The commission already has set a meeting for next Thursday as well, for the same time and place.

The first full regular business meeting of the unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education was a doozy, lasting nearly 5 hours. The biggest issues decided involved charter schools (only two applications were approved, both from KIPP Academy) and vouchers.

As might be expected in a first meeting that included seven rookies and members who had operated apart for many years, there were snags. Approval of minutes from previous meetings, which usually is cursory, dragged on for nearly and hour. Several times throughout the meeting one member or another would voice objection to taking action on something, claiming they did not have enough information.

Jane Roberts filed this report for print and online, and followed up with a dispatch for the web on the resolution offered by MCS representative Sara Lewis opposing state Sen. Brian Kelsey's so-called vouchers bill -- providing public funds for students to use at a private school of their choosing. Diane George of Collierville asked that the board wait to meet with Kelsey before joining other major school systems in the state in formally renouncing and fighting against the bill. MCS board member Tomeka Hart was on the prevailing side, and she and others said the issue has been well-discussed and researched:
"It keeps coming, so I don't think there is any interest in talking. This is taking public dollars and going to private schools and we can do nothing about it. If charters don't do certain things they can be closed by state law, but there is nothing we can do with private schools."
Probably the biggest news involving the charter approvals -- or, more accurately, the many rejections (only two of 22 made the cut) -- was the failed application from former Memphis mayor and schools superintendent Willie Herenton. His W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium did not come close to the 86 points from the charter evaluation committee required for approval, gaining just 57.5 points in all.

Only two KIPP Academy proposals were accepted. The other groups now have until Nov. 9 to correct problems in their applications and resubmit. Several of the board members from MCS districts attributed the success of those charters that are already operating with an evaluation standard that has historically rejected more charter applications, especially at first.
To get a better understanding of why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is so focused on teacher effectiveness and the role Memphis is playing in their project, here is a piece published in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend. At tonight's first regular meeting of a unified countywide 23-member Shelby County Board of Education, MCS Supt. Kriner Cash will give what is termed a "stocktake debrief" of the Foundation's Teacher Effectiveness Initiative in Memphis. Several representatives of the Gates Foundation have been in town evaluating the progress of their initiatives here.

The Journal piece lays out the Foundation's vision for the project:
For the last several years, our foundation has been working with more than 3,000 teachers on a large research project called Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET. These teachers volunteered to have their classes videotaped and their lessons scored by experts, to have their students evaluate their teaching, to fill out surveys about the support they receive and to be assessed on their content knowledge.

The intermediate goal of MET is to discover what we are able to measure that is predictive of student success. The end goal is to have a better sense of what makes teaching work so that school districts can start to hire, train and promote based on meaningful standards.

In developing MET, we have worked closely with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and we have seen both the AFT and the National Education Association show a willingness to rethink evaluation systems. Given the scale and scope of the problem, there must be dialogue about solutions among unions, teachers and administrators.

Why focus on teacher effectiveness? They write:

It may surprise you--it was certainly surprising to us--but the field of education doesn't know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they've mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can't give teachers the right kind of support because there's no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can't evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we're looking for. We can't spread best practices because we can't capture them in the first place.

The piece actually holds up Memphis and a teacher at Ridgeway Middle as an example of how the program can work to improve classroom performance:

Last year, we visited Ridgeway Middle School in Memphis and sat down with Mahalia Davis while she watched a videotape of herself teaching. Ms. Davis had many years of experience, and it was obvious to us that she was a standout. She watched her video because she wanted to get even better at something she already did well.

We were impressed by how much Ms. Davis enjoyed taking apart the craft of her own teaching. She leaned forward in her chair and said, "Look, I just lost that student." Then she said, "The class wasn't with me on that point. I need to teach that concept in a new way."

Like all people who are proud of the work they do, teachers want to improve, but they need the tools to do it. We are now compiling libraries of tens of thousands of videos, and we plan to use these videos to advance professional development for teachers.
Tonight at 5:30 p.m., the unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education holds its first business meeting since becoming a countywide board earlier this month. The meeting is held at the Memphis City Schools Teaching and Learning Academy at 2840 Union Avenue, just around the corner from the large office complex off Hollywood that is shared by MCS and Shelby County Schools.

You can read the agenda here: Board Agenda - 1025.pdf.

As Jane Roberts reports here, we expect the biggest issues of the night to be recommendation of charter schools and debate over a resolution regarding the bill that Germantown State Sen. Brian Kelsey is advancing on giving families vouchers to help pay for private school tuition.

Sara Lewis, an MCS representative who had a long career as MCS teacher, principal and administrator, will introduce a resolution opposed to the vouchers bill. Other systems in Tennessee are lined up aggressively opposing the bill, including the Oak Ridge system that Germantown officials visited last week. Lewis said:
"Public school money should be used for public schools. It's not that I am entirely satisfied with what is going on in the public schools or that I think we can't do more, but taking away resources and sending them to someone else who may not do any better is not the answer."
However, fellow Memphis representative Kenneth Whalum Jr., fresh off hearing nationally-renowned educator Steve Perry endorse vouchers at a Lipscomb & Pitts Breakfast Club meeting last week, takes an entirely different tack, which the article goes into. The story on Perry's talk last week makes for interesting reading; basically, he says if schools aren't performing well, close them. And if there aren't enough good public schools, then go with vouchers.

Interestingly, the board agenda tonight also includes MCS Supt. Kriner Cash's presentation on "rightsizing" which would result in closing schools that are not performing well and/or are under-utilized and/or badly need renovations.

The meeting can be seen on cable channel 19, heard on FM 88.5 or followed online via a livestream at SCSBoard.org.
In case you missed it, we ran this as a brief in Saturday's print edition. Two key takeaways here -- the unified board has created a web portal to expand access and information to the general public and it will now be possible to follow school board meetings online.

A new website, SCSboard.org, will carry live streaming video of all meetings of the unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education and promises to provide "accurate, updated information from all parties involved in the merger of the Memphis City and the Shelby County school systems."

Created as a collaboration between MCS and SCS, it has a section featuring the board members, another section featuring the 21-member transition commission charged with crafting a plan for merger and aims to provide ways for the public to contact members of both.

Videos of past meetings will also be available. The 4-hour organizational meeting held Oct. 10 is available.

Jeffrey Warren, an MCS representative, said there was a desire to add live Web streaming. Cable channel 19 also carries board meetings, which are available on MCS's radio station, FM 88.5.

Warren credited MCS chief information officer Rich Valerga and the tech company e2edu.net with making it happen so quickly.

The first official business meeting of the board is Tuesday night beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Teaching & Learning Academy, 2485 Union.

On Tuesday, in its first-ever business meeting as a unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education representing Memphis and suburban Shelby County, perhaps the biggest issue confronting the board will likely concern the approval of a record number of charter school applications. Jane Roberts today delves into the practical challenges the issue of charter-school approval creates for the board, and lays out why it is unlikely a moratorium would be granted, as suggested by MCS representative Jeff Warren in last week's board work session.

Rev. Anthony Anderson, head of the Memphis Business Academy charter school, agrees with Warren. "It makes sense from a business perspective," he said. "The unified board is trying to maintain and understand what they have instead of adding new programs. "A charter school is definitely going to a 'new program.'"

Board member David Pickler says Warren's idea is "intriguing" but doubts it is practical.

"The problem is the law is determined by the legislators and they don't come back into session until late January," he said. "We have a 60-day window upon which we must act on the application or they are deemed to be approved."

The story goes into some fascinating numbers from studies by Stanford University on whether charter schools are more or less effective at improving educational outcomes when compared to traditional public schools. It's important to remember that charter schools are public schools. Jane always provides an easily understandable paragraph explaining this:
Charter operators have latitude to set their own hours and school calendar and hire whomever they want, although teachers must be state-certified. Tax dollars for education follow the student to the charter school.

Thursday's third meeting of Shelby County's schools merger transition commission will feature a panel and roundtable discussion with key leaders who helped guide the Chattanooga-Hamilton County schools merger. Among them will be Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register, who then was the Hamilton County superintendent, and Jack Murrah, a community leader who helped with the formation of the Chattanooga Community Education Alliance under then-mayor and current U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.  

The meeting of the 21-member team is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the University of Memphis's FedEx Institute of Technology. Members of the 23-member school board and staff from both school systems are expected to attend, as well.

There is no other business on the agenda. Chairwoman Barbara Prescott said she sees the meeting as a way of "framing" the mission the commission. Mike Casserly, who has served as executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools since 1992, will facilitate the panel and guide the subsequent discussion period.

Hamilton County Schools absorbed the Chattanooga city school district in the mid-1990s.

"We think it's going to be instructive and will give us some ideas about the issues that arose and how they feel it is doing now - plus they are in the state of Tennessee," Prescott said.

Read more about the meeting after the jump below:
One significant item related to the merger came up at last night's working meeting of the unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education. Staff from Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools presented their recommendation for a process of selecting textbooks. During the transition, there will be one "textbook selection committee" with equal membership from MCS and SCS and they will follow a protocol for selecting textbooks for each system in accordance with Tennessee law. Here is how the process is described on the board's agenda:
The State of Tennessee has established a cycle for the adoption of textbooks for all subject matter areas predicated upon a fixed six-year selection cycle. School districts in Tennessee are expected to convene textbook selection committees to make recommendations for specific subject area textbooks for classroom use during the six-year period. Given that there are currently differences between the MCS and SCS textbook selection processes and funding cycles, staff from both school districts have met to clarify differences between the processes and agreed upon the following recommendations that are responsive to the upcoming merger of the two school districts in August of 2013.

See the full 7-point recommendation after the jump:
Jane Roberts reports that last night's first working meeting of the unified Shelby County Board of Education highlighted suburban Shelby County Schools members' skepticism over the issue of charter schools. David Reaves of Bartlett focused on a comment from Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash over the possibility of a charter school taking over properties MCS administration is proposing to abandon -- Graceland Elementary, Georgia Avenue Elementary and Lakeview Elementary -- because of declining enrollment, disappointing performance and deferred maintenance. Reaves expressed his belief that the system should be running schools so well that a charter school would not be a better option.

While MCS has approved many taxpayer-funded charter schools and been inundated with applications for many more, SCS has strongly resisted. Last year, it denied an application, but the state overruled and made SCS accept. The Consortium of Law and Business opened this year, and the 23-member board -- now comprised of MCS, SCS and seven appointed countywide members -- will be next month given recommendations by the MCS and SCS administrations about many more applications. David Pickler, who was chairman of SCS from 1999 until last month, has predicted "exponentially" more applications and on Tuesday asked that all board members receive a Stanford University study from 1999 showing that only 17 percent of all charter schools outperform traditional public schools and that "more than double that are performing less well."

Click this link here for that study, which involved 15 states and Washington, D.C., and says in its executive summary:
The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.

These findings underlie the parallel findings of significant state‐by‐state differences in charter school performance and in the national aggregate performance of charter schools. The policy challenge is how to deal constructively with varying levels of performance today and into the future.
Though MCS has approved many more charters, Pickler will find allies on the MCS board who are also skeptical about charter schools. Dr. Jeff Warren suggested asking the state to give Shelby a "bye" and stop approving charters until schools consolidation is completed. Among those applying for charter schools are former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and the nationally-renowned KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy.

The unified countywide school board holds a working meeting tonight at 5:30 p.m. at the Memphis City Schools Teaching and Learning Academy at 2485 Union Avenue.  This is tonight's agenda. The 23-member board, which elected Orgel at an organizational meeting last week, will hold its first full business meeting next Tuesday -- same time, same place.

Tonight's meeting begins with the suburban Shelby County Schools system presenting its items for consideration, with Memphis City Schools to follow. The two systems will remain separate for the next two school years -- merger is to be complete in time for the 2013-14 school year. Until merger is complete, the systems will present take turns at meetings presenting their full agendas in total, rather than one item from one system, one from the other system, etc. 

By the way, you will notice that the Shelby County Schools website now features documents with a a kind of unified logo combining the SCS and Memphis City Schools logos.


After the jump, see a full list of the agenda:

Jane Roberts this morning provided a more in-depth look at Billy Orgel, who tonight fully assumes his new role as chairman of the unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education. Our Business section profiled Orgel in 2010 when he was inducted into the Society of Entrepreneurs, but today's profile focuses more on his emerging leadership in public life. From the profile:

Orgel, president of Tower Ventures, a cellphone tower company, says he will approach the job like he does everything: "I listen and learn and then form an opinion. I think in this new role, we have to keep in mind that there's going to be diversity of opinion. But I think all of us realize that the goal is to carry out our task, which is to consolidate two schools systems into one."

He knows the consolidation will happen. His measure of success will be if friends who home-school or send their children to private schools return to the public school system.

Orgel grew up in Memphis, a product of its public and private schools (Richland Elementary and Memphis University School). He left to attend the University of Texas-Austin, then came back to eventually start Tower Ventures. He was appointed to the FedExForum building authority in 2001. He served 20 years on the Temple Israel board of trustees, including two as president.

He is also the only person in the 80-year history of Bridges to serve a three-year term as president, which he did when it was in the middle of a $10.5 million capital building campaign and needed his continuity, said former executive director Jim Boyd.
Jane Roberts takes a closer look at the ramifications of Monday's vote by the unified Shelby County Board of Education to rearrange the organizational chart so that suburban Shelby County Schools general counsel Valerie Speakman now answers to the board, rather than the superintendent. Memphis City Schools general counsel Dorsey Hopson also was officially moved so he will answer to this board -- he previously was supervised directly by the MCS board. The story digs into the potential for a huge salary increase for Speakman, lifting her to the level of Hopson.

The main reason for Collierville attorney Vanecia Kimbrow's motion was to make sure those giving legal advice to the board are in fact ultimately accountable to the board. Kimbrow and fellow appointed member City of Memphis prosecutor Teresa Jones each made the case that as lawyers they were very concerned about avoiding any potential conflict of interest. I was also told by one board member that a concern is having the same attorney drafting employment contracts for a superintendent or superintendents and their staffs also being employed at their whim.

Speakman makes $152,000 compared to Hopson's $189,000, so any bump for her would mean a $37,000 raise -- about a 25-percent increase. However, Kimbrow's final reading out loud of her motion did not include any language authorizing a salary increase. The discussion over the issue did go on for nearly an hour -- at least twice as long as discussion on any other matter that came before the board on Monday. Within that discussion, it was a suburban Shelby County Schools board member, David Reaves of Bartlett, who suggested that salaries be "leveled" with a "bump."

Here is a play by play of the less than 60 seconds of discussion on the specific issue of salary:
REAVES: "If we're expecting both of them to be general counsels of the board, I would like to see the pay scales bumped." Pause:  "Can we not do that?"
Appointee Kevin Woods, a Republican from Memphis, sees a chance to cut costs and says, "Are we going to take the lowest again?" Lots of laughter follows. Woods persists, saying his "conservative" colleagues should see it as an opportunity.
Then Kimbrow said, "It will be cheaper than (name of outside law firm) would be."
Reaves: "There is a little disparity there, I think."
Pickler. "So is that a friendly amendment?" Pause.  "Ms. Kimbrow?" Pause. "Somebody's getting a pay raise here, right?"

At that point, Arlington mayor Mike Wissman tried again to have the issue deferred to next week's work session. When Kimbrow called the question, this is what she said -- again with no mention of a change in salary.
"I'm going to move for the question that with attorney Hopson and attorney Speakman, that we realign the organizational chart that they report to the new board of education and they support the superintendent in matters of his discretion or their discretion. They can appoint outside counsel on matters where the superintendent may feel he needs independent counsel, either he or Cash, with financial responsibility for attorney Hopson continuing through his contract period with (MCS) and attorney Speakman's compensation to remain with the board of education as the contract now stands."

Even with a work session Tuesday expected to go heavy on educational needs, this issue seems poised to take up a good deal more time from the board. The suburban SCS representatives -- or at least Pickler and Reaves -- seemed intent on giving Speakman equity with her colleague, since both will be representing the same board after all. However, former MCS president Martavius Jones makes the point in the story that, "If you look at the volume of work the general counsel of Memphis City Schools does versus that of Shelby County Schools, you are not making an apples to apples comparison." MCS board members have also long made the point that the free market for salaries to hire experienced personnel for a large urban districts is much different than the free market for salaries for hiring experienced personnel for suburban districts.

It is certainly an example of one small but important matter that could well disrupt "unity" on the "unified" board. It should be pointed out that both Speakman and Hopson lavished praise on one another and spoke of how eager they are to get to work helping with the monumental task before the board and administrations.
Following is based on a dispatch Jane Roberts sent late last night that did not make the final version of our print edition or the website. It has been edited and expanded in a few spots.

Much is being said and written about the length and seeming minutiae of Monday night's organizational meeting of the Shelby County Board of Education as a unified 23-person body (see Wendi Thomas on it here), but it was primarily one unanticipated issue that pushed the meeting beyond the planned three hours.

The discussions and motions and amendments and clarifications and points of order and attempts to table went on for 54 minutes over, essentially, where on the organizational chart to place staff lawyers Valerie Speakman (Shelby County) and Dorsey Hopson (Memphis City Schools).

Collierville attorney Vanecia Kimbrow, one of the County Commission's seven appointees, asked at the beginning of the meeting to add the issue to the agenda, and it came up near the end of the meeting, just after the planned ending time of 8:30 p.m.

When the matter was finally voted on at almost 9:30 p.m., after attempts to table and defer it, Kimbrow phrased the motion like this:
"I'm going to move for the question that with attorney Hopson and attorney Speakman, that we realign the organizational chart that they report to the new board of education and they support the superintendent in matters of his discretion or their discretion. They can appoint outside counsel on matters where the superintendent may feel he needs independent counsel, either he or Cash, with financial responsibility for attorney Hopson continuing through his contract period with (MCS) and attorney Speakman's compensation to remain with the board of education as the contract now stands."
It passed, 13 votes to 8. Kimbrow, who has held leadership positions with local legal groups, showed a relentless consistency in making sure the matter was settled.  

Historically, the SCS board had put its general counsel underneath the superintendent, while the MCS board's attorney was underneath the purview of the board -working with the administration on legal matters but ultimately independent and answering to the board. Kimbrow called it an inherent conflict of interest -- having an attorney who reports to the superintendent be the legal counsel for the board.

Also crucial last night - Hopson's  contract with the now-defunct MCS board allowed him a buyout if he were not retained as the new board's legal counsel. He emphatically stated he wanted to stay with on board. "I don't want to go anywhere," Hopson said. "I want to be a part of what you all are doing."

At the heart of the issue for Kimbrow and the majority of the board was the vulnerability it faced if it did not have legal counsel representing it alone. Kimbrow said it was "totally improper, in my opinion," for the board's legal counsel to report to and be supervised by an employee of the school board who may have an agenda separate from the school board's.

"She tenders her decisions to her boss and her supervisor, and the way the organization chart provides, that is in fact what happens," said Kimbrow, a mother of three children currently in suburban Shelby County schools. Kimbrow said she would agree to the board hiring outside legal counsel for the superintendents but "in no instance will I support Ms. Speakman being counsel and reporting to Mr. Aitken or Mr. Cash," she said.

Longtime SCS board chairman David Pickler said the SCS board has relied on an outside law firm for board decisions, but SCS board member Diane George said she never had access to legal advice. "I haven't been able to pick up the phone and call that law firm," George said. "My experience has been, it is exactly right, it is a conflict of interest. We need to have someone that is going to be the legal counsel to this board."

Hopson said he needed direction from the board. When it wasn't immediately forthcoming, board member Reginald Porter reminded the board that it had not answered Hopson's question. Some board members seemed to take Kimbrow's questioning of the organizational structure as an implied questioning of Speakman and Hopson - both of whom praised one another's work and seemed eager to go forward as a team.

"We are in quandary and I think this is a very complicated situation," said board member Betty Mallott. "I'm troubled that it appears we can't trust the attorneys who have guided us so long and worked together and cooperated with the judge. I have never heard one of these say anything about the other that the other is not trustworthy.
"If we are going to make this kind of an issue over these two respected, laudable people, then how in the world are we going to merge this district? I haven't seen a reason to question the legal advice of either of the attorneys."

David Reaves of Bartlett suggested the possibility of having both attorneys answer to the superintendents and start new with a legal counsel answering to the board. But ultimately Kimbrow's motion carried, supported by a mix of Memphis and suburban residents. Hopson seemed relieved. He and Speakman said they have had long conversations about working together.
Kudos to Jane Roberts for earning this much-deserved praise in a Letter to the Editor for her coverage of the situation at Ridgeway High School, which had been forced to re-assign a physics teacher to chemistry. That meant students taking physics would have to rely on an online course, but the University of Memphis agreed to collaborate with Memphis City Schools on a solution.

Jill Notowich, a mother of one of the students, took the time to send in a Letter to the Editor. Here is the full link and below is an excerpt:
This is exactly the force Commercial Appeal writer Jane Roberts took when covering the MCS physics crisis this past week at Ridgeway High School. Her dedication to writing this story started a gradual spreading effect or influence known as the "ripple effect." Thanks to her dedication and perseverance in sharing the story, good came out of a bad situation.

Profiles of the 7 appointees to the Shelby County unified school board

This post contains small profiles of the Shelby County Commission's seven appointees to the 23-member unified school board.

On Oct. 1, the seven appointed by the commission will officially become part of a 23-member unified board which also includes the current nine Memphis City Schools board members and current seven Shelby County Schools board members. That board will have ultimate authority and responsibility for adopting transition plans that the state has charged a 21-person transition commission with creating. The board also will oversee the continued administration and operation of MCS and the suburban SCS.

The seven appointed seats are subject to election in August 2012, but the MCS and SCS board members will not face election -- they fall off the board after merger becomes complete with the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, under terms of a settlement reached in federal court between all the parties who have been involved in the schools consolidation legal fight.

The seven picks (map is here):
District 1: Christopher Caldwell, Morgan Keegan vice president. District 2: Teresa Jones, prosecutor for City of Memphis. District 3: Raphael McInnis, Medtronic regulatory affairs specialist. District 4: Vanecia Kimbrow, attorney. District 5: Kevin Woods, New Horizons information technology. District 6: Reginald Porter Jr., FedEx process advisor. District 7: Billy Orgel, Tower Ventures CEO

After the jump, find the small profiles.
In addition to referencing the 1961 integration of Memphis City Schools, two speakers at Monday's oath of office ceremonies for new unified school board members also brought attention to the fact that the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuits were first filed in 1951, 60 years ago. One of them was the longtime Shelby County Schools board chairman, David Pickler, and the other was U.S. Appeals Court Judge Bernice Donald.

It was Donald who as a district court judge ruled in 2007 against the suburban system's plea to be released from a court-supervised desegregation order. Donald had expressed concern that many of the suburban schools had fewer than 10 percent black students and others had between 56 and 90 percent -- and that Southwind High would be comprised of nearly 90 percent black students when it opened. She ordered busing to achieve racial balances in schools within 15 percent of the districtwide average (at the time, 58 percent white and 31 percent black; now, closer to 52 percent white and 38 percent black) and also cited need for progress in faculty assignment and extracurricular activities.

However, the very same court of appeals on which Donald now serves overruled, using at times stinging language in rebuking her decision and therefore providing SCS the "unitary status" it had long sought. Essentially, the appeals court agreed with SCS and the original plaintiffs that it no longer needed a judge's permission to make changes to zoning and staffing that might affect racial balances at the district's schools. "I have dreamed of this moment," Pickler said at the time. According to our story:
The Court of Appeals ruled that the district wasn't at fault for the uneven racial makeup of schools, citing annexations by the city of Memphis, people's choices in where to live and school construction approved by the court. "It is undisputed that political and social decisions beyond the defendant Board's control have affected and continue to impact the racial ratio of the Shelby County students," the ruling says.
That appeals court ruling came in the week marking the 54th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which Donald and Pickler both cited on Monday. Donald, after a receiving a standing ovation from the packed MCS auditorium, said:
"Education is the foundation upon which all great communities, all great nations, are ultimately built. If we are ever going to have communities of equity and opportunity it is incumbent upon all of us to insure that every child has a solid and wonderful education."

In closing the ceremony, Pickler thanked Donald for bringing up Brown. Here is what he said:

You may also recall that one of the significant and influential Supreme Court justices was Felix Frankfurter, and one of his greatest accomplishments was bringing together a unanimous verdict, a unanimous decision in that Brown case because he felt it so important to send that message. Felix Frankfurter has a saying. He said, "The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny." As those Supreme Court justices, all nine of them came together, we 23 have an opportunity to come together for the benefit of our community, to be the most pervasive influence on the future of our community.
In researching to verify Pickler's statement on Frankfurter, another quote attributed to Frankfurter also arose. It was at his insistence that the phrase "all deliberate speed" replace "forthwith" in the Brown decision, and it was upon that basis, argue many legal scholars, that school systems, especially in the South, were able to delay fully integrating schools for nearly two decades. The fact that it was more than six years after Brown that Memphis took the so-called "bold" putting the burden of integration on the shoulders of 13 young children integrate speaks to the extent of noncompliance with Brown.

For more on Memphis and desegregation, schools merger transition team member Daniel Kiel's legal article "Exploded Dream" is a good resource. This Library of Congress website is a great resource on Frankfurter and his colleagues and the Brown decision. It has the image of the original draft decree from Frankfurter and explains:
Frankfurter inserted "with all deliberate speed" in place of "forthwith," which Thurgood Marshall had suggested to achieve an accelerated desegregation timetable. Frankfurter wanted to anchor the decree in an established doctrine, and his endorsement of it sought to advance a consensus held by the entire court. The justices thought that the decree should provide for flexible enforcement, appeal to established principles, and suggest some basic ground rules for judges of the lower courts. When it became clear that opponents of desegregation were using the doctrine to delay and avoid compliance with Brown, the Court began to express reservations about the phrase.
Several speakers at Monday's oath of office ceremonies for the newest seven members of the now unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education referred to the fact that it was 50 years to the day that 13 African-American children integrated Memphis City Schools. On Sunday, our own Linda Moore delivered a fine project on what has come to be remembered as the Memphis 13, and one of the schools merger transition commission members, Daniel Kiel, debuted his oral-history documentary on the Memphis 13 on Monday.

Rev. LaSimba Gray, who gave one of four prayers, was the first, talking about children who "without vote or voice obeyed their parents" so that the city "set sail into the uncharted waters of desegregation." Gray, who actually had strongly opposed MCS (now 85 percent black) surrendering its charter to force consolidation with the now mostly-suburban SCS (about 38 percent black), was more than just implying a connection. He and many others who packed the MCS auditorium (a reception was later held on the SCS side of the office complex) used words like "unified" and "unity" over and over, voicing their hope that schools merger would bring the community closer together.

In his prayer, Gray said in part: "Here we are now 50 years later at another historical moment, another historical date, another historical crossroads. Two school systems will be made into one."

Temple Isreal Rabbi Micah Greenstein followed with an even more explicit prayer for unity, saying that "quality public education for the 85 percent of students who rely on public education is a religious imperative." Later, he prayed that the board members would "transcend the political and rally as one to create the unified community You want and we need."

That nobody over the entire 90-minute ceremony referred directly or indirectly to the movement by cities in suburban Shelby County to explore opting out of the unified system by creating their municipal school districts -- or a network of municipal districts (Clay Bailey has this update today)  -- could be seen as either polite or naive. Of the many ingredients that will be stirred into the politics of municipal districts, one of them will certainly be over diversity.

School diversity will also be one of the key legal components -- though federal courts have become more conservative, precedent falls heavily against changes in educational structure that would create more segregated schools (some opponents of consolidation even used this argument, saying merger would trigger middle-class flight from suburbs and therefore undermine the notion of "unity"). Another key in any legal battle over the municipal districts will be whether President Obama wins re-election in 2012. A Democratic justice departments would likely react much differently than a Republican justice department to claims the municipal school districts would in effect be allowing a more segregated school structure in Shelby County.

The closing prayer, from pastor Noel Hutchinson, who was a finalist for one of the new board positions, did allude to more work neededing to be done to create real unity: "When we leave here we pray that suburban and urban residents will walk together for the sake of their children."

One of the merger transition team members, Collierville real-estate developer and former Shelby County Commissioner Tommy Hart, told me last week that he wants that group to create a list of benchmarks for what it would consider success in the short-term and long-term. High on that list, Hart said, is this: "Creating a system to where those in the suburbs don't reel there is a need for a different system. I think they are expecting more of the same and they are doubting Thomases."
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at www.MemphisNewsBlog.com, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at zmcmillin@commercialappeal.com or 529-2564.

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