Accord at the Eleventh Hour (Literally)

Yes, Tuesday’s elongated Unified School Board meeting was exhausting, but it was also exhaustive — and fruitful.

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Boad member David Reaves: ...a great meeting.
  • JB
  • Boad member David Reaves: "...a great meeting."
Well into the sixth hour of a unified School Board meeting that had started at 5:30 Tuesday afternoon, Board member David Reaves cast his vote with the Board majority for a hybrid transportation plan, exulted, “This was a great meeting,” and promptly moved for immediate adjournment. Wilted and/or giddy, most of the 23 members of the crazy-quilt, mixed city-and-county Board probably agreed wiith his sense of the moment.

A week after failing to reach agreement on school closures or cleaning services and only hours after being tongue-lashed in absentia by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who was irked (as many of the Board members themselves were, for that matter) by their inaction, the Board disposed of several pending matters and even managed to extract some not too scolding advice from Rick Masson, the hitherto Delphically silent Special Master appointed by presiding federal Judge Hardy Mays.

They also dealt with virtually all of the recommendations inherited from the Transition Planning Commission and were suddenly within grasping distance of being able to submit a budget for the 2013-14 school year. Their previous failure to come anywhere close to one had been the catalyst for the outburst earlier Tuesday by Luttrell, who told a luncheon meeting of the Memphis Rotary Club that the seemingly gridlocked Board had been doing the community a “disservice.”

The mayor had also lent his support to the idea, discussed in several quarters after this month’s passage of municipal-schools legislation in Nashville, that city/county school merger, scheduled to be completed on July 1, might be held off for a year. A resolution to that effect would be introduced Tuesday night by veteran Board iconoclast Kenneth Whalum Jr. but was fairly effectively iced by advice from the aforementioned Masson.

The meeting began with a 30-minute warm-up round, during which audience members were invited to speak directly to the Board, and the sentiments that were expressed ran the gamut, with people expressing their desires that former Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken be drafted to return from retirement or that current interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson be induced to remain in the role permanently, that the merger be advanced or slowed or even abrogated, and much else, across the spectrum of opinion.

Not long after that Chris Caldwell, as expected, put before the Board a motion to allow PROACT, the firm hired by the Board to find a superintendent for the new Unified system, to shelve their search efforts, for which they were facing a completion deadline on Friday, until the fall and winter months. News of the company’s desire to lay off for a year had leaked earlier in the day.

Caldwell said he “strongly” recommended allowing the firm to cease its recruiting efforts until after the beginning of the next school year.

Referring to a communication received from PROACT, he cited the firm’s conclusion that it would be too much of a challenge to recruit “the right kind of candidate,” given all the uncertainties swirling about the Board at that point — concern about the makeup and composition of the School Board, about the size of the Unified district, the prospect of separate municipal districts, and the pay scale a superintendent might expect. Concerns, too, about the departure of two prior superintendents and uncertainties about staff matters.

Caldwell made a point of stroking Hopson, the former Memphis City Schools attorney who succeeded MCS superintendent Kriner Cash and SCS superintendent Aitken, both of whose contracts had been bought out. “Until someone undoes that, he’s the superintendent,” Caldwell said, praising the “stability” brought by Hopson and “the kind of work he and his deputy have done.”

As for a putative successor to Hopson, Caldwell opined, “Because of all this dysfunction that has gone on, I’d be very reluctant to get into this job until I knew what I was getting into.”

Not everybody was all that ready to cut PROACT any slack — especially, it seemed, some former members of the MCS board who had insisted on the superintendency search last year when there was a move on to hire Aitken. Stephanie Gatewood and Teresa Jones both suggested the firm shouldn’t get any more pay until they got back on the job, and Tomeka Hart, eyeing the Friday deadline, said, “How will they know what they’ll get or won’t get by Friday?” She added, “We knew it was chaos at the time we hired them.”

In the end, most members responded to Caldwell’s (and PROACT’s) request in the manner of former SCS Board member Wissman, who said, “We need to listen to somebody.” The vote was 18-4, but Gatewood and Jones got their way with the Board on withholding payments during the cesura.

In the aftermath of the vote, Board chairman Billy Orgel, an inveterate jester, would ask Hopson, “Are you cool with hanging around?” Hopson deadpanned, “I’m willing to serve, Mr. Chair.”

FROM THERE THE BOARD segued into a report by attorney Valerie Speakman on a conference Tuesday involving the attorneys for the various parties to the still ongoing school-merger litigation and presiding judge Mays. The issue had been whether the Shelby County Commission had authority to appoint the six new members the Commission wants to add to the 7-member Unified Board that will exist on July 1.

“The hearing had no fruit at the end of it,” said an unaccountably poetic Speakman, who reported that representatives of the county’s suburban municipalities had raised the issue of scotching expansion plans altogether. Speakman said, “We took the position that the Board could be expanded in the general election of 2014.” The judge had asked for information on voting precincts, apparently with an eye toward the possible changing of district lines with the ultimate onset of municipal districts.

Speakman reported that representatives of the Shelby County Election Commission had declared it impossible to hold a special election until December of this year, a fact that caused Board member Martavius Jones to wonder if state law did not require such an election to be called within 60 to 90 days of a formal request, as it had following the eventful MCS charter surrender of December 2010, which he and Hart had overseen.

Speakman confessed she had not fathomed the Election Commission’s reasoning. “I can’t really say I understood,” she said. “They kept talking about some kind of new computer system and IT people, and some were here and some weren’t.” This, it should be said, is par for the course when it comes to the kind of specialized hair-splitting one hears from Election Commission sources and at SCEC meetings.

“An absurdity,” was how Jones summed up the Commission’s position.


AFTER A LENGTHY DISCUSSION, the Board, which had deadlocked on teachers’ compensation issues for weeks, somehow found a basis for compromise between the concepts of rewarding the acquisition of post-graduate credits in the traditional way and the now modish idea of merit pay — “blending performance in with professional development,” as Patrice Robinson would put it.

It took a while, but the 16-5 vote on the compromise plan (with one abstention) indicated that the Board had heeded the messages of frustration and impatience emanating from Luttrell, PROACT, and — as it shortly turned out — Mays.

Whalum’s resolution to put off merger for a year took the form, as it had to, of asking the judge’s consent. And it was the occasion for Jeff Warren’s asking an opinion on the matter from Special Master Masson, the bearded and gaunt onlooker who for all the Board meetings since his March appointment as a monitor of the lagging merger process by Mays, had sat silent, immobile, and inscrutable, as if modeling for a bust of Lincoln.

Now Masson rekindled memories of his days as a prime advisor to former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, outlining the situation in a series of lucid but densely weighted sentences. There was a “mistaken understanding that a federal judge can do whatever they feel like doing,” Masson said, but in fact judges were “constrained by state law and case law. “

The law required that the merger be completed before the 2013 school year, Masson explained, and there was consequently “no basis for the judge to delay merger.” The Special Master also noted that the existing timetable and arrangements that all parties were obliged by were not decreed by Mays but contained in a consent order which the judge had approved.

The bottom line: “There is no legal basis for a divert.” Not until and unless the contending parties should agree to a new consent order.

There was more discussion, but the point of no return had been reached on the Whalum initiative. “It doesn’t seem like we’ll be able to put the genie back in the bottle,” concluded Jeff Warren, who — not for the first time — opened up a new and fertile subject area. Should not the Unified Board itself be a party to future hearings with Judge Mays? There was general agreement, and implied consent from Masson, that the Board should indeed be so involved.

Masson found it timely at this point to read the riot act to the Board, as politely as such a thing can be done. He and Mays had been astonished to find the Board’s arrangements for a unified IT program and other matters to be behind schedule. “We expected to see a countdown clock with a sense of urgency.” The judge expected the Board to make decisions.

But there was some soft soap in the lecture. “Of all my years in public service,” said Masson, he had not seen a group so clearly representative of the entire community as on this night at the Board meeting. “The judge and I have great faith in the democratic process. We want you-all to demonstrate that our community can work together. If you can do it, we can do it as a community.”

David Reaves intervened with a motion — unsuccessful by a vote of 15-3 — to request Mays to maintain a 7-member maximum for the Unified board. And Whalum’s main motion, for the record, went down 15-6.

Whalum was unfazed. “My heart is a-flutter because we got the Master to talk tonight,” he wagged.

From that point on, the meeting went comfortably downhill.

An accord was reached on the previously intractable matter of school closures — though all it amounted to was a tentative agreement on the identity of 16 institutions that, for various reasons, depopulation primary among them, seemed most eligible for closure. A policy in hand at last, the Board agreed to hold practical discussions on the matter, coinciding with public forums in the affected areas, beginning in August.

The night's final discussion, on transportation, was markedly uncontentious, and resulted in another compromise, blending out-sourced bus services with expanded use of the fleet vehicles now owned by the Unified district — and doing it so as to achieve an apparent discount.

“Let’s not stop the ball rolling,” was Orgel’s epitaph on the meeting, perilously near the midnight hour, and, like Reaves' summary at adjournment, it seemed appropriate. n

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