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Too Much Tension

By Mary Cashiola

Herenton gathers groups to discuss school-funding reform.

The Memphis City Council CHAMBER was so full of local power Monday afternoon, it looked like an MLGW plant.

Mayor Willie Herenton took the reins of the city/county schools funding discussion a meeting between all the members of the city council, Shelby County Commission, Memphis City Schools board of education, and the Shelby County Schools board of education to discuss comprehensive school-funding reform. But after two hours, with all that power in the same room, the atmosphere crackled with tension.

"Anytime you put that many elected officials in a room, politics will always get into it," local businessman Russell Gwatney said Tuesday. "We need them to talk to each other. The task force has no power. They have the power."

Since January, a task force convened by the mayor has examined new ways of funding public education. Members from the different governmental bodies met behind closed doors to discuss the details. When the document became public in April, it was met with instant criticism, especially from elected officials who felt they had not been kept abreast of the developments. City schools commissioner Hubon Sandridge went so far as to tear apart his copy of the document in protest.

Herenton, who called the meeting both historic and fraught with distrust, said that, as elected officials, they could all agree that every student in the county deserved the highest quality of education that the community was able to afford. However, he said, "Our duty is to spend the taxpayers' money as efficiently as possible."

One of the weightiest parts of the task force's proposal is single-source funding. The idea is that the county will pay for both the operating budgets of the city and the county but that capital improvements for the county schools will be paid for by the county; city school capital improvements will be picked up by the city. The county's ever-increasing debt is being driven by the current formula which allocates $3 to the city for every $1 the county spends in capital improvements.

The reforms also include freezing the boundaries of each school district, improving the quality of early-childhood education, and nullifying 1996's Cordova High School Joint Operating Agreement between the systems. Instead, the county district would take over the school to the tune of $18 million for the city system.

So far, the county school system is behind the proposal, at least provisionally. The city schools, on the other hand, submitted a three-page list of questions they wanted answered before they took action.

Herenton said that he heard people say if the president of the county school board wants the plan, it can't be good for city schools or black children. Or if it's good for the city, it can't be good for the suburban communities. "The communication could have been improved," said Herenton. "I thought the task-force representatives would have kept their bodies informed."

The task force was composed of representatives from each school system, the mayor of both the city and the county, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Memphis area corporate leaders. However, Jim Mitchell, David Pickler, Bobby Webb, Harold Waldon, and Lee Winchester have been or are associated with the county system. Attorney Ernest Kelly and associate superintendent Roland McElrath primarily represented the city schools, although Michael Hooks Jr., Johnnie Watson, and Barbara Prescott also attended some of the sessions.

The task force also outlined a time line by which the different bodies would move on the issue. The school systems would have to vote on the proposal by June 17th. Many officials bristled at the imposed deadline.

Sandridge asked the mayor to reconsider. "There's no emergency, no urgency. You have to deal with the distrust factor," he said.

The plan has been criticized as both a back door to consolidation and a chance to create permanent "separate but unequal" school districts.

"How do we avoid continuing the perception and the reality of 'separate but not equal' by perpetuating separate school systems for a single group of people?" asked county commissioner Julian Bolton. "The systems are not equal in the eyes of the community."

Herenton replied that neither system was of higher quality than the other. He also raised the idea of consolidation.

"In an ideal world, if we take the broader view, it's the best interest of schools in the long term to consolidate city and county schools," he said. "Can we get it done and in some reasonable amount of time? I would say no."

Last month, Gwatney told the Flyer that the task force had the public's best interest at heart but that the politics surrounding the issue had to be eliminated to move forward.

"We're not here for public opinion," he said. "When this idea comes to the public, we'll have to explain it in a lot more detail. We'll go to the different elected bodies and determine if they like it. It's not the Holy Grail."

When Gwatney told officials at the meeting to say what they didn't like about the proposal, replies rang out from the audience.

The city school board has its own list of questions which were never answered during the dialogue. City council chair Rickey Peete assigned TaJuan Stout Mitchell to chair an ad hoc committee to thoroughly study the proposal. And one county commissioner was overheard describing the meeting as "bullshit" and "a waste" of his time.

"If y'all don't like this, let's reconvene. If y'all come up with something better, I'm all for it," said Herenton.

And in at least one respect, it was historic.

"We've never gotten all these lawyers [on the task force] to agree," said Herenton. n

A Uniform Decision?

By Mary Cashiola

School board ponders Watson's strategic plan.

City schools superintendent Johnnie Watson has a goal with a timetable: Have all the city schools off the state-identified low-performing list by the end of 2004.

Watson, speaking on his "Strategic Plan for 2001-2004" to the school board at Monday night's meeting, said that if the schools are not off the list by that time, he will submit a plan to the board to reconstitute them himself.

The city currently has 64 schools on the state-identified list. Those that do not improve in three years are in danger of being taken over by the state.

Other aspects of his strategic plan include giving all students access to textbooks in the core curriculum by the fall of 2002, decreasing the number of teachers who do not have certificates by 5 percent each year, and having 100 percent of school personnel go through customer-service training by 2004.

"I'm proud as a board member to know how we're going to accomplish our goals," said board of education president Michael Hooks Jr.

The board also discussed how to implement its new districtwide policy on school uniforms for students in kindergarten though grade 12. The board had charged the staff at its last meeting to develop a working policy. A committee to do so held its first meeting last Thursday.

The committee, which included teachers, parents, students, and principals, recommended that the policy not take effect until the 2003-2004 school year. The delay would give principals time to enlist support from students as well as inform all the parents, especially those in non-English-speaking communities.

The commissioners discussed adding an amendment to delay the implementation until the 2003 school year.

"I'm willing to listen to the recommendation of the committee," said Commissioner Barbara Prescott.

Not all the board agreed. Commissioner Patrice Robinson cautioned that the school district didn't have time to put anything off. Commissioner Wanda Halbert echoed those sentiments.

"We have got to stop making excuses in the Memphis City Schools," said Halbert. "Everybody in the state is talking about the Memphis City Schools going to uniforms. You tell me what kid or what parent does not know they are supposed to be wearing uniforms?"

What the uniforms will look like or whether they will be chosen by each school or districtwide has not yet been decided. Commissioner Lora Jobe, who originally authored the resolution for the low-performing schools, said her intent was that the uniforms would by chosen on a school-by-school basis.

But the public was curiously mum on the subject. Of the five speakers originally slated to speak on uniforms, only one was there when it was time to take the podium. She was in favor of the uniform policy.

Kennith Van Buren was originally supposed to speak but was called away by a family emergency. Van Buren is the executive director of Direct Action, Inc., a community group that plans on filing a federal lawsuit against the school district.

"Our concern is that the school board is trying to get the blame off themselves and onto the students. This policy robs them of their self-esteem; it robs them of their freedom of expression; it robs them of their First Amendment rights," said Van Buren.

"Since the issue came up, we've had parents who are not members of our organization come to us looking for help," said Van Buren. "[The board] is going to have to explain this to the parents. They expect the parents to chew it up and eat it and just accept it."

The uniforms, he also contends, will not stop gang-banging or drug use and will not help students pass the TCAP. n

State Earns National Hero's Award

By Janel Davis

Distinction goes to Tennessee's emergency program for children.

Tennessee's Emergency Medical Service for Children (EMSC) project has been honored with a 2002 State Achievement Award. EMSC is part of a national initiative designed to reduce child and youth disability and death due to severe illness or injury.

Tennessee EMSC received the National Hero's Award in a Dallas meeting of representatives of the federally funded program.

"Emergency care is different for children. Children need different-size equipment and they are monitored differently," says Rhonda Phillippi, executive director of the Children's Emergency Care Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports the EMSC mission in the state.

The presentation coincides with National EMS week, May 19-25, which celebrates 30 years of emergency medical services.

"We are proud that Tennessee's EMSC efforts have been recognized with this award," said Phillippi. "The award is important because only one or two are given each year, and this is only the fifth year that awards have been distributed."

Tennessee's EMSC program began in 1994. Four years later, the state passed legislation to ensure quality emergency pediatric care. As a result, partnerships have been established with the Rural Health Association of Tennessee and the Tennessee Hospital Association to provide grants for education and equipment for 54 of the state's primarily rural counties.

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