Friday, November 16, 2012

Memphis, Shelby County Schools face many challenges and hurdles in consolidation merger

Memphis, Shelby County Schools face many challenges and hurdles in consolidation merger
By:  Michael G. Lander 

Memphis and Shelby County schools face many of the same challenges as other school systems, and even more as they proceed with plans to merge into a single consolidated school system.

The consolidation was the result of Memphis City Schools surrendering its special charter because  of a "threat of reduced funding for Memphis City Schools (MCS) as Shelby County pursued special school district status," Memphis Education Association UniServ Director Tom Marchand said. 

Because of the consolidation, six area municipalities of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington, chose to pursue plans for their own separate school districts because "they view MCS as a failing school system and they do not want anything to do with it," Merchand said.  A federal court ruling on the on the constitutionality of municipal school districts is expected in the next few weeks.

As this highly contentious issue proceeds, the Memphis City School School System is welcoming news from the Tennessee Department of Education who recently released its 2012 report card.  The report card showed that MCS has met the majority of its achievement goals for the year, has improved in core subjects such as math and reading, and has received higher TCAP test scores.  In addition, it has also had a small increase in attendance levels from K - 12.

According to the report, however, MCS does continue to have lingering problems, including a graduation rate that fell just below 70 percent.  This is the lowest it has been over the past three years.  There were also 26,000 suspensions with a disproportionate number of these, over 24,000, involving black students.  MCS is also one of six Mid-South school districts that the state said needs to make improvements  in the gap between poor and affluent students.

In response to the state's report card, Shelby County Board of Education (SCBE) member, Tomeka Hart, said, " We still have a long way to go, but we are moving in the right direction."

Because of the consolidation, the Memphis Education Association (MEA) and the Shelby County Education Association (SCEA) are currently in the middle of talks to combine with one another by the end of June 2013.  This will mean that "teachers will still have an organization to represent them," Marchand said.

On October 30, 6,000 signatures were presented to the Board of Education from teachers in both school systems for collaborative conferencing between MEA and SCEA.  "The two organizations are working together to ensure that all professional employees of the combined school system have something in place to protect their rights," Marchand said.  The state legislature repealed bargaining last year and replaced it with the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA).  With this, 15 percent of the employees must show an interest for the process to begin.

Marchand said that approximately 60 percent of the employees signed the petitions to move forward with conferencing with over 2,000 signatures coming from Shelby County.  One of the benefits of a consolidated school system will be greater "efficiency and lower cost to taxpayers, "Shelby County Board of Education member, Martavius Jones said.  "A larger district is able to offer a greater variety of academic offerings than a more fragmented or smaller district," he added.

Marchand said that any potential cost savings with services not being duplicated, however, would be erased if the municipalities are successful in their efforts to have their own separate school systems.

One of the changes that is expected after consolidation involves the issue of classroom sizes.  "The Transition Planning Commission (TPC) recommends larger class sizes in the new district.  This may save some money, but it will not help the educational process," Memphis Education Association President Keith Williams said.  Williams pointed to research conducted in the state that proved smaller class sizes impacted the achievement levels of students.

Jones, however, said that he does not necessarily agree with this.  "Having a classroom with 30 students and an effective teacher, we feel, is better than a classroom of 15 with an ineffective teacher," Jones said.

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