Superintendents Pledge to Make Transition Smooth

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Kriner Cash (left) with board and staff.
Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken and his Memphis City Schools counterpart, Kriner Cash, said they spoke to each other Wednesday morning and promised to give their students a smooth transition for the next two years now that Memphis voters approved MCS charter surrender.

Aitken and Cash, along with members of their respective school boards, held separate press conferences. In tone they were different. A smiling Aitken arrived early, joked with reporters, offered to sing a few bars of "Ain't No Sunshine," and spoke informally with board chairman David Pickler at his side. For whatever reason, he is "John" to most media. Cash was ten minutes late and sat behind a row of desks and microphones with five board members and the board's attorney. He patiently answered questions for nearly an hour. For whatever reason, he is "Dr. Cash" to most media.

Both men stayed upbeat without understating the magnitude of the challenge of merging two school systems with 150,000 students. It was hard to tell that both of them had opposed MCS charter surrender for two months before the referendum. They expressed no hard feelings, promised to put students first, and said they will try to combine the best features of both systems. Several county board members attended the MCS press conference, and got polite recognition from Cash and the MCS board.

They also both finessed some likely sticking points that could make harmony short-lived.

Aitken said the appointment process for the 21-member transition committee, which is slanted against pro-merger forces and excludes Memphis Mayor A C Wharton among others, is "out of our hands." Then he yielded to Pickler, who said "we're going to follow state law." The Shelby County Commission has other ideas.

Cash, who had warned three months ago that his board was foolishly picking a fight with Shelby County, said he was satisfied with the two-to-one vote to surrender the charter and suggested that energy can now get behind his school reform agenda and "a better-than-ever unified school system."

"We now have the vote and the mandate to get it done," he said.

Asked if he plans to stick around to see that happen, he said "I do. I would like to stay in this work here because I think it is unfinished." Cash has 18 months left on his contract.

"It is not time yet to move along," he said.

Cash scolded the Memphis City Council for stripping funding from MCS in 2008 and said the system badly needs the back payment and continued funding to the tune of $78 million a year. That payment is no longer assured, however, since MCS is surrendering its charter.

Exactly when that will happen, however, is uncertain. Board attorney Dorsey Hopson emphatically stated that the city school board still exists and will be around during the transition period that, by state law, could last two and one-half years. "Absolutely yes," he said. That view will be challenged politically and in court.

Cash also brought up the subject of school closings. He said he never said 50 schools would be closed, but thinks the number is more like 6 to 12 schools. And he hopes to replace those schools with charter schools so the neighborhoods are not abandoned. He said that could save $2-3 million per school, or $36 million on the upside if you do the math. That will soothe some neighborhoods but it will do little to address the "huge, huge budget shortfall" Cash described.

Asked if the transition committee and the superintendents can really give it their best shot when the possibility of a separate Shelby County special school district at the end of that time is built into the state legislation, Cash yielded to merger proponent Tomeka Hart. She said the systems will be merged first and left it at that.

It was that sort of morning, with everyone on their best behavior for the time being, minimizing the major differences of opinion, philosophy, needs, and outlook for the future that got us here.

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