Schools Panel Should Leave Everything on the Field


Transition Planning Commission to unified Shelby County School Board: Close 21 (unnamed) schools before school starts in 2013 and save about $20 million.

Predicted response of school board: That's easy for you to say.

The planning commission knows this, because several of them are current or former Memphis City Schools board members, students, or staff. They can only plan; it is the school board that is empowered to make decisions, as the federal court ruled last year. So don't expect there to be 21 school closings before school starts in 2013.

Near the end of Friday's meeting, chairwoman Barbara Prescott, a former MCS board member, asked for a non-binding show of hands to signify general agreement or disagreement with the school closing recommendation. TPC members tentatively raised their arms like students hoping they would not be called upon in class.

The lack of enthusiasm was understandable.

"This will be a very difficult implementation process," said Prescott.

Closing schools, especially high schools, has "a tremendous negative effect" on the community, said Reginald Green.

The open secret is that underutilized schools (58 percent of capacity in the targeted areas of northwest and southwest Memphis) are a fact of life. In 2005, the Memphis school board closed four schools, and this year three more schools will be closed, but closing 21 at a time, including four high schools, would be unprecedented.

Right-sizing is a moment of truth. Former Memphis superintendent Johnnie B. Watson has said that closing schools was the hardest thing he had to do in his career. The bad news is usually buffered with hopeful comments about alternative uses such as charter schools or community centers that might or might not pan out. But Pete Gorman, the former superintendent of the award-winning Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, admitted that "you can't close schools well" when he spoke to the TPC last year.

The TPC should ask its Boston consultants what alternatives are feasible and what impact they would have on the projected savings if the lights have to be turned on anyway and the buildings have to be ADA compliant. If school closings come to a vote, the school board will need all the evidence and support it can get.

There has never been a schools transition planning commission before, and there will probably never be another one. This is not a team, because that implies a common goal, but it is a diverse, experienced group. Look at these names and backgrounds on the TPC website. The report the TPC puts together in the next six weeks will be one of a kind. It won't be the last word. The school board rules. The state legislature and the Shelby County suburban mayors are moving full speed toward a vote on municipal schools this year, as Jackson Baker reported.

To borrow a favorite motivational line from coaches, the TPC must "leave everything on the field" if a unified system including the suburbs is to have a chance. Acknowledge the changes that have happened since the panel was created. Improvise. Everyone else is. If TPC members want to put some meat on the bones of a unified system, recommend that the board hire popular Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken. And examine the claim that the municipalities should get their school buildings for free because they "have already paid for them." And put a dollar figure on the cost of new schools, and identify who will have the responsibility of paying for them. If there are going to be referendums this year, give the voters some names and numbers to weigh against the projections of the suburban school consultants.

In one of the first TPC meetings six months ago, members talked about their hopes in a get-to-know-you session. Louis Padgett, the principal at Northhaven Elementary School, urged everyone to "really go at each other really hard" and "take on our biases."

The schedule that Prescott outlined calls for some long meetings in May and June. It will be tempting to remain above the fray, bury some things under words and numbers, and just be done with it. The court-ordered and carefully chosen TPC, with all those consultants and staff its disposal, should go at it really hard and take on biases.

I know, easy for me to say.

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