School Planning Team Sends Norris and Nashville a Mixed Message

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Barbara Prescott
  • Barbara Prescott
The elected officials and citizen volunteers on the Transition Planning Commission have been a model of decorum since they started work last year, but the underlying differences of opinion over a future unified school system came out front and center at Thursday's meeting.

The spark, of course, was municipal school systems and their champion in the state legislature, Senator Mark Norris.

Some members of the TPC, including chairman Barbara Prescott and Jim Boyd, think Norris is undercutting their efforts to come up with a plan for a system , starting in August of 2013, that could serve 150,000 students — in other words, all the students currently in city or county public schools. Other members, notably Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, say suburban municipalities should be allowed to vote this spring on starting their own systems, and if the vote is favorable, that will help the TPC plan for a smaller unified system. The timetable, as much as the outcome, is at issue.

Thursday's meeting featured two votes that divided the commission. The first was whether to consider a motion by Boyd to address the issue. It passed. The second was on whether to send Norris and his friends in Nashville a message to stop acting as if he speaks on their behalf and to let the TPC do its work. It failed, but partly because Prescott, who voted no, feared that a favorable vote would be misconstrued as the TPC opposing municipal school districts under any circumstances, which is not her view.

(If that sounds confusing, then you have not been following the schools saga for the last two years. And we're 15 months from August of 2013 . . .)

The muni-issue first came up in an executive session and then took up more than an hour of the general session until members voted and abruptly left. There were no insults and no shouting, but the rifts were plain to see. In previous meetings, members have been bending over backwards to find some common ground on non-muni items and behaving in the manner of ambassadors. But the hard work starts in May, when weekly meetings are expected to last two to four hours or longer, according to committee chairs. The goal is to have a plan by mid-June.

The soft-spoken Boyd, leader of the nonprofit Bridges for 16 years until stepping down last year, first drew attention to the elephant in the room at an otherwise ho-hum executive session. Coincidentally, neither suburban champion David Pickler (at a convention) or McDonald (last-minute arrival) were there when he did it, but McDonald figured out what was up in short order.

"The same people who wrote that (Norris-Todd bill) legislation have changed the rules of the game," Boyd said. He said he took the job to create a unified system, and to not speak out against what he perceives as shenanigans in Nashville "is to forsake the responsibility that was originally given to us."

The legislature intends to act this session, Boyd said, so "we either act now or it's law."

McDonald first objected to adding Boyd's motion to the agenda of the general meeting, but Prescott allowed it. McDonald then said that Boyd's motion would be an attempt to kill what was merely "clarification" of the Norris-Todd bill. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell suggested deferring the item until a future meeting

"For us to go out on a limb and take a position against municipal districts is beyond our mandate," Luttrell said.

Boyd tried to explain that was not his intent, but one way or another, Luttrell had made a point that seemed to influence Prescott and other members to back off, while expressing appreciation to Boyd. Prescott added that she had personally notified Norris that she resented him, in her view, presuming to speak or act on behalf of the TPC.

"We're not blind to the fact that our plan might not serve 150,000 students," she said, but she thinks it is best to prepare for that number in case the muni's don't come to pass for whatever reason.

Members, some of whom had been in TPC meetings for five hours Thursday, quit for the day shortly after 7 p.m. They have to be wondering if the herculean task ahead of them is worth it without fresh judicial intervention or a commitment from Luttrell and other moderates to hold the line on muni's until August of 2013 as the original bill said. The muni's and the uni's sharply disagree about the significance of a go-slow opinion by the state attorney general earlier this month. McDonald called it "one lawyer's opinion." If the suburbs form their own systems and the "unified" system starts with, say, 100,000-120,000 students, their plans and calculations based on 150,000 students won't be worth much if anything.

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