Transition commission hopes for model system, fears scare tactics of those opposed to merger

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.

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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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