Memphis-Shelby Schools Merge, Amid Uncertainty

Crossing guard Garland Combs stops traffic as a parent walks his daughter to Idlewild Elementary School in Memphis earlier this year.  When Memphis and Shelby County schools merge, the start times for school will change.
Crossing guard Garland Combs stops traffic as a parent walks his daughter to Idlewild Elementary School in Memphis earlier this year. When Memphis and Shelby County schools merge, the start times for school will change.
—Mike Brown/Commercial Appeal/Zuma
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While plans are forging ahead this summer for joining Memphis' 140,000-student school system with the surrounding suburban district, school officials also have to take into account the possibility that the unification might be temporary.

The Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn., districts officially merged July 1. For one year at least, the unified district will be the nation's 14th largest, and the planning for the merger has involved board members and district leaders from both legacy systems.

The merger stemmed from the city schools' desire to be more financially stable.

"The merger gave us the opportunity to identify inefficiencies. Our community had to come together to improve and invest in the schools," said Kenya Bradshaw, a fellow with the Minneapolis-based Policy Innovators in Education Network, who served on a transition planning committee for the new district.

However, several municipalities in the surrounding county will vote next month to determine whether new school districts will be carved out of the newly unified system starting in 2014-15. Differing racial demographics have also emerged as an issue.

Although district officials say the system is ready to open schools' doors in August, the possibility of those further changes has affected the planning, said Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who also served on the transition planning committee.

"There's so much uncertainty about whether the new municipal districts are going to exist," he said.

Behind the Merger

A 23-member combined school board and district leaders have resolved myriad policy differences between the Memphis and Shelby County schools, but left other school-level policy discrepancies largely untouched.

The merger between the school systems has been in the works since March 2011, when Memphis voters approved a school board decision to surrender the city district's charter because of concerns about future funding. "It was seen as a hostile takeover" by many in Shelby County, said Michael Swift, the director of finance and administration for the Shelby County Commission.

Six municipalities in Shelby County soon took steps to create their own breakaway districts. In November 2012, those efforts were ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, Samuel H. Mays Jr., who has since appointed a special master, Rick Masson, to oversee the merger. But the Tennessee legislature passed a new law this spring that permits the creation of the municipal districts to move forward.

The county finances both the city and suburban school districts, but the new municipal districts would require new taxes for residents of those jurisdictions.

Suburban residents are concerned that they will be underrepresented on the board of the newly merged system, as the bulk of the population served by the new district will reside within Memphis city limits, said Wyatt Bunker, a county commissioner. Beginning in September, the merged district will have a seven-member board.

"They knew they had the majority population," Mr. Bunker said, "so they'd have the majority of school board members. ... The [city's] school system has been failing, and it's failing for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the school board."

"It's been a very polarizing issue in Shelby County," he said. "The suburbs, which are predominantly white, and the inner city, which is predominantly black, see it completely differently."

But not every resident is clear about what the merger would entail, said Mr. Kiel of the University of Memphis. He said there were misperceptions about the quality of Memphis' school system, for instance. And, despite the fact that the student-assignment process "was a political nonstarter" from the beginning. some had fears that their schools' demographics might shift, he said.

Financial Implications

If and when the municipal districts are created, questions such as which system will own buildings and which will be responsible for pension funds must be resolved, said Martavius D. Jones, a member of the board of the merged district.

Not knowing what enrollment will be for 2014-15 also presents challenges for the merged district, said board member Tomeka Hart, a former president of the Memphis Urban League and now the vice president for African-American community relations for Teach For America.

That uncertainty is due to the growth of the charter school sector in the city and the state-run Achievement School District in addition to the possible creation of the new suburban districts. Created to turn around some of the state's worst-performing schools, the achievement district runs five schools in Memphis.

For those proposed districts, "I am concerned about smaller communities, … whether or not they'd be able to sustain new districts over time," said Mr. Bunker.

This fiscal year, $10 million, or about 1 percent of the district's budget remains unfunded, Mr. Swift said. The merged district will spend less of the county's money in its first year than the two separate systems spent last year, he said.

Policy Changes

Neither of the districts' most recent permanent superintendents will lead the merged district: Kriner Cash retired from the Memphis city schools in January, and John Aitken's contract with the Shelby County schools was bought out in March. Dorsey E. Hopson II, who had been the legal counsel of the Memphis district, has been the interim superintendent in charge of the merged system.

There has been no search for a permanent successor just yet, said Mr. Jones, the board member, since the future is still in flux.

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When school starts next month, there will be some changes—more Advanced Placement courses, for one. Janitorial and transportation services will be contracted out for the entire district instead of just for Shelby County's schools.

Some 300 central-office employees—80 percent from Memphis and 20 percent from Shelby County—were laid off last month, and teachers from both legacy districts lost jobs in the spring. Administrators in the old Memphis district had their salaries raised to match those in Shelby County, Mr. Jones said.

One unresolved issue: Shelby County schools technically allowed corporal punishment, while it was prohibited in the Memphis schools. The merged district has not yet set its policy.

Regardless of what happens next, the TFA's Ms. Hart said the merger has led to at least one important change: "Memphis and Shelby had to start talking together about public education."

Vol. 32, Issue 36, Page 16

Published in Print: July 10, 2013, as Tenn. Districts Unite Amid Uncertainty
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