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Doubts persist on Memphis, Shelby County school merger plan

Reader Comment: Blah, blah, blah!!! More contrived Gates fluff!! It's about control not the "kids!!"

By Gary Shorb

Guest column

Gary Shorb is chairman of the PeopleFirst Partnership, a Memphis Fast Forward Initiative. He also is CEO of Methodist Healthcare.

We have a chance to be great.

We face a rare, once-in-a-generation moment to shape the course of our community's future.It comes in an area which we all agree is the most important challenge in Memphis and Shelby County: public education.

For years, we've said that high-quality public education is the number one priority for our community. We knew that if we could reform and improve our public schools, it would be the single most important thing we could do to send our community to a positive, prosperous future.

There is no question that the results would be transformative. They would create vastly better options in the lives of students as they enter the workforce, create a family and contribute to their community. It would be our most compelling talent development strategy and it would propel our economic growth.
Schools in transition

That's why we have to approach this long-awaited opportunity as the historic decision that it is. We have the ability to transform our educational landscape to provide all of our children with new and better academic and economic opportunities through a nationally significant unified school system.

The importance of this moment in time was reflected in a quarterly meeting I chaired just days ago with a coalition of 30 or so community leaders from business, higher education, secondary education, early childhood development, philanthropy, faith, nonprofit and government sectors who work together to advance a bold agenda for human capital development along the cradle-to-career pipeline.
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Called the PeopleFirst Partnership, this group assembled most recently to consider endorsing the recommendations of the Transition Planning Commission, which was created by state law to develop a plan for a unified school system.

Our endorsement is unanimous and enthusiastic.

First of all, we heartily commend the TPC for a thoughtful and first-rate planning process. Beginning with the dedication and civility of its members and the responsive and intelligent participation of leaders from both school systems, and including the fidelity to 10 impressive guiding principles, the extensive community engagement and research on best practices, and the judicious identification of opportunities to redeploy resources where they can have the greatest impact on student success, this process was a model in mature leadership, not for just our community, but for any community grappling with an equally crucial public issue.

More important, the recommendations themselves represent a courageous blueprint for a world-class unified school system for Shelby County. The TPC's focus on expanding pre-K opportunities, improving and supporting effective teaching, growing the Gates Foundation's Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, designing targeted student interventions, adopting higher common core standards and developing job-embedded professional development, are critical pieces to moving toward a school system based on research and best practices and known for its excellence.

The entire TPC plan can be read at ourvoiceourschools.org.

Both Memphis and Shelby County mayors are members of the leadership team of PeopleFirst and shared their enthusiasm for the TPC recommendations.

County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who also served on the TPC as an ex-officio member, said: "The TPC put forth a process that was innovative and inclusive of all Shelby County but more importantly, produced a plan that puts academic success above all. As a TPC member, I believe that the educational priorities and reform agenda will have an impact on student achievement. As funding poses the greatest threat to the adoption of the plan, I encourage the school board to make the decisions necessary to achieve the first-class system while not unduly burdening our citizens with a large tax increase. It is indeed a system that has the potential to change the future for our students. Leadership at all levels is now required if we have hopes of implementing the vision and guidance provided by the TPC."

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton stated: "A city cannot be great without a great public school system. The TPC's plan is a roadmap to building a great school system in this new unified school district.

With this plan, and the full investment of our citizens, we can show the world that Memphis and Shelby County can lead our nation in achieving education excellence. I have consistently made a distinction between education and schooling and I am glad to see a path in this plan for the city to support the important education work needed to make Memphis and Shelby County great."

The mayors are right, and it is time now for organizations and individuals to stand up, act, advocate and serve as guardians of this pathway to a great school system. It is up to all of us as concerned citizens to get engaged, review the plan and find specific ways to ensure that this blueprint can become a reality for our children.

We have prayed for this opportunity for decades. We cannot let it pass. The TPC has done its inspired work and shown us the way. Now let us join hands to take charge of our own destiny and to realize our dreams for Shelby County public education that sets the standard for the nation.

NOTE: Jim Horn commented at the newspaper site--and provoked grateful 'thank you' remarks.

NOTE: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given numerous grants to Stand for Children. Here's the largest:

May 2010
Purpose: to support education reforms, training, technical assistance, and tools designed to increase teacher effectiveness
Amount: $3,476,300

Jim Horn Comment: The story unfolding around the "merger" gets more and more interesting, with one of the Gates front men, Gary Shorb, publishing yesterday a plea for all sides to come together to embrace what is essentially a resegregation merger plan written by the Gates Foundation and their political arm-twisting outfit, Stand On, er, For Children (SFC). SFC has successfully led the pro-corporate education reform in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, and now Tennessee. It is the ultimate irony that the Shelby County Commission, which supports the "merger" plan, is now accusing outlying Shelby County towns of racism for planning to bail out on this corporate-sponsored apartheid plan for Memphis, whereby the poorest children will be further segregated in corporate welfare schools.

The mechanism for getting the "merger" done to benefit the corporate charter school industry was to get the State Legislature to write a law, first, to create the TPC to be the public face for the plan, as devised by the corporate foundations. Kenya Bradshaw, Executive Director of SFC, serves as Secretary on the Commission of 18 appointees.

Basically, this plan squeezes spending for children to cover the costs of the hemorrhagic loss of revenue from shifting millions from public schools over to corporate charter operators. Secondarily, it is a plan to replace experienced teachers in urban schools with nominally prepared neophytes who will ply their trade in apartheid total compliance apartheid charter schools. Thirdly, it is an attack on the teaching profession and job security. Fourthly, it is to a plan to privatize as many school services as possible and to cut benefits for the remaining employees.

A few details on the TPC Plan:
"A system with multiple school operators (e.g. District, ASD and charter schools) inherently costs more to operate due to loss of scale with fixed costs being allocated across a smaller volume of students. This multi-operator environment is in place today and is projected to expand irrespective of the merger. To date, the districts have found creative ways to manage the increased costs of the existing multi-operator system (e.g. cutting or shifting 400+ positions out of the General Fund to right-size staff). However, with the projected share of students in non-district operated schools expanding rapidly in the next few years—from approximately 4% in FY2012 to 19% by FY2016 (equivalent to approximately $212M of revenues shifted to charter schools and the ASD in FY2016)" (p. 168).

Note that almost 400 public school teachers will be lost in the first 3 years, and the Stand on Children folks are planning to make sure that these teachers lose the opportunity to transfer to the charter system being planned for urban Memphis. One of the new priorities in the TPC plan will be the “Repealing TCA § 49-5-511 which requires districts to place tenured teachers on a preferred reemployment list if they lose their jobs due to a reduction in force” (p. 195).

by Michael Kelley

Members of the Transition Planning Commission are basking in accolades as they unveil their plan for merging Memphis and Shelby County schools. Tennessee Eduction Commissioner Kevin Huffman had nothing but praise for the diverse 21-member group when he got the plan Thursday.

But after six months of volunteer labor, reaching its first big milestone has not been all sweetness and light for the TPC.

There have been some uncomfortable moments, as well, during the rollout, foreshadowing what could become a donnybrook when the more politically oriented unified Shelby County school board, whose 23 members battle untiringly over the most minute procedural questions, begins to wrestle with the details.

The TPC plan includes initiatives that would improve public education in Shelby County, but its effort to overcome fierce financial headwinds, namely the loss of $68 million in city of Memphis funding, includes such controversial proposals as outsourcing custodial and transportation services and closing 21 schools. And its budget is still $57 million short without drastic cuts that would directly affect the classroom.

A cartoon penned by the Memphis Education Association's Susanne Jackson — distributed during a unified board meeting on Tuesday — summed up a growing protest. The drawing juxtaposed an image resembling TPC chair Barbara Prescott, advocating reduced health care benefits, privatization and a delay in the plan to adjust teacher salaries, with the late Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, declaring, "We don't need unions" in 1968.

Some doubts were aired, as well, after TPC members, appearing before about 200 members of the general public Thursday night at the Agricenter, screened a 12-minute video outlining the 120-page plan and how it was developed.

Questions showed there is still skepticism about such issues as the level of special education services that will be available in the unified district and whether there will be large-scale busing of students after the plan's two-year freeze on school attendance lines has expired.

The plan, in fact, calls for an increase in the number of special education clerks, which would free teachers to give students more attention. And small adjustments are always being made by the school board as residential patterns change, but there is "no agenda," Prescott said, to transport students or teachers to distant schools.

The Q&A session began with Central High School student John Synk asking if the TPC wants to eliminate the popular English program for gifted students known as CLUE. In fact, one of the recommendations is to harmonize programs for gifted students in both districts, without cutting those that exist in either one.

The TPC's proposal to close 21 schools in northwest and southwest Memphis drew a request for more details. There weren't many. The recommendation does not include a specific list of 21 schools, focusing, instead, on the benefits that would accrue if the school board took on that politically explosive task.

Raising utilization rates among fewer schools, the plan argues, would not only save millions, but it would also make it possible for each school to offer more academic programs.

Chad Johnson, executive director of AFSCME Local 1733, asked if the TPC had addressed the economic harm that can be expected from its custodial services outsourcing proposal.

It's "reasonable to expect and common practice," said Richard Holden, who chaired the group's Logistics Committee, to include rehiring clauses in requests for proposals that would be issued in outsourcing situations. Jim Boyd, who co-chaired the Community Engagement and Communications Committee, said job placement services would be offered to employees who lose their jobs.

Johnson and some of his members have been at odds with the TPC for months over whether the commission has given school district employees a genuine opportunity to voice their concerns. The latest count shows that the TPC has heard 13,650 voices through community engagement events. Union voices, TPC members contend, have been among them.

— Gary Shorb & Michael Kelley, comments by Jim Horn
Memphis Commercial Appeal





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