Jeff Warren Makes Another Try at an MCS-SCS Compromise

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Dr. Jeff Warren
  • JB
  • Dr. Jeff Warren
If at first you don’t succeed…Well, if you’re Dr. Jeff Warren of the Memphis City Schools Board, you keep trying, Charlie Brown-like, even long past a time when everybody else has lost count of your previous efforts and even after some of your fellow Board members have lost patience with you altogether.

Warren has been conspicuously looking for the Golden Mean of compromise from the very beginning of the current crisis, which began with the MC S board’s anxiety over the prospect of Special School District status for Shelby County Schools and has now entered a phase in which the anxiety is on the county side concerning the imminent forced consolidation of the two school systems.

In the minds of many supporters of the MCS charter surrender referendum, Warren’s several proposals up until this week had seemed either too favorable to county interests or too incapable of bridging the gap between MCS and SCS.

At a recent MCS “work session,” Board colleague Stephanie Gatewood chided Warren for his many solo efforts to bridge the gap between the two systems. "This is the fourth time you’ve tried to recreate, revise, or re-edit,” she told him, pointing out that so far neither of the contending boards had signed on to one of his plans.

For the record, Warren now has a new plan — his fifth, it would seem — which he put forth to the MCS Board Tuesday night. Like the last one, this one contemplates a variant of a previous plan which had emanated from the SCS board but was rejected by a majority of MCS board members.

Warren acknowledged the affinities between his new plan and the SCS precursor, including the hiring of an expert “in school governance,” the appointment of two parallel slates of parents, administrators, and other citizens by the two boards to create a common “team,” and the preparation of a referendum.

But there were “a number of changes,” as Warren said Monday night. Instead of the several alternative possibilities that might have been recommended under the SCS plan, Warren’s comes with a specific recommendation — for the model he vented last week, a consolidated district broken down into five sub-districts governed by a chancellor. Referendum language to that end would be agreed on “no later than July 1, 2012.”

And the most significant alteration in previous formulas — his own and that of the SCS alike — is that Warren’s new plan would proceed regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming citywide referendum on MCS charter surrender, scheduled for March 8, or whatever counter-legislation might emerge from the General Assembly, including creation of an SSD for Shelby County Schools.

As before, the vote on Warren’s contemplated referendum would be countywide. But the kicker is that if the referendum should fail, “Shelby County Schools will assume control of Memphis City Schools.”

That provision might assure Warren of a friendlier hearing than any of his previous plans — as “new business” Monday night, it won’t be discussed for action until the Board’s next regular meeting — but it may already have been overtaken by events.

The newest development is a plan said to be under active discussion by representatives of several of the county municipalities, sidestepping the either-or alternatives of consolidation and Special School District status with a new formulation that is essentially an SSD by another name. That would be the creation of a network of municipally operated school systems.

This alternative is under active consideration in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, and Arlington — though, since it would be supported by new tax levies, it might prove too burdensome for other suburban municipalities. And unincorporated portions of Shelby County would apparently be left outside the structure (though fee-based loopholes might be created allowing residents access to a given municipal system).

Legislative sanction would be needed for such a plan, as for special school districts, and one of the unanswered questions is whether currently existing school buildings and other infrastructure are the rightful property of the county or the state and whether they would need to be purchased.

If outright consolidation of the city and county systems should occur, a consensus is building toward some variation of the five-sub-district formula like that proposed by Warren. Among the other proponents of such a system are Memphis city councilman Shea Flinn and former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.

Even state Senator Mark Norris, the GOP majority leader of the state Senate and the author of legislation designed to avert the consequences of an MCS charter surrender, has expressed himself as being open-minded to some such formula (though he also foresees it being directed by "joint boards of control."

And David Pickler, the SCS board chairman whose call for new SSD legislation was the catalyst for the current crisis, has said that such an outcome would be preferable to other consolidation formats.

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