Concomitant with this week’s surprise move by state Senator Mark Norris and state Representative Curry Todd, both of Collierville, to co-opt Memphis’ agreed-upon annexation reserve on behalf of the suburbs, and the city’s hurry-up response to annex the Gray’s Creek area, was another ticking time-bomb.
This one was courtesy of former longtime Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler, a key member now of both the interim Unified School Board and the Transition Planning Commission established to guide city/county school merger.
In a weekend interview with the Flyer, Pickler confided his intent to persuade his fellow TPC members to reconstrue their mission so as to incorporate the concept of multiple school districts.
Said Pickler: “They need to understand that, whereas the opinion heretofore on the committee has been that they believe their charge is only to develop a plan for the entire district, I think that what Senator Norris has put before us and what the municipal communities are moving towards is going to impose a new reality on the Commission and its charge.”
Accordingly, Pickler announced his intention to address this Thursday’s meeting of the TPC by conference call from Washington, where he would be in his role as president-elect of the National School Board Association. He would ask his colleagues to entertain a visit from Jim Mitchell, the former SCS superintendent who now heads Southern Educational Strategies, the consultant group which is advising Memphis’ municipal suburbs on the likely formation of their own school systems.
This constitutes a return to form, of a sort. It was Pickler’s enthusiastic for a special suburban school district in late 2010 that was cited by Memphis City Schools board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart as the reason for their push toward surrender of the MCS charter, a move that forced the now ongoing merger of MCS with SCS.
For the last several months, however, Pickler’s rhetoric has been studiously neutral and generally supportive of the efforts of the unified Board and the Transition Planning Commission to move toward the new era of city/county merger.
No more. Or at least no longer in so single-minded a fashion.
Pickler expressed support for the efforts of suburban leaders (a fair number of whom belong to either the unified Board or the TPC): “I absolutely do believe it’s up to each of the suburban leaders to do exactly what they have done, to do their due diligence, to conduct the feasibility studies, and to determine whether or not an administrative district is both legally, academically, and fiscally feasible.
“They’ve done that work, and, while some may disagree with some aspects of their feasibility study, they’re moving well down the track toward a referendum in May, and doing the things that they regard as appropriate.”
In addition to the six or so potential municipal school districts that could be formed under the rubric of the original Norris-Todd bill, passed a year ago, other components of a “new reality” mentioned by Pickler include the possibility of as many as 65 under-performing Memphis schools coming under the administration of the new state Achievement School District and “anywhere from 27 to 44” new charter schools.
Pickler, who co-chairs the TPC’s administrative governance committee (along with former opposite number Jones), said his committee investigated at least 20 different school districts in the nation, involving urban areas like New Orleans, Chicago, and Denver, and found a multitude of different approaches to administering similar realities.
“I think what we’re going to have to do with the Transition Planning Committee [sic] is understand and embrace these new realities. And I think we need to come up with at least one or more alternatives, because I don’t think we can just go out there and say, ‘We’re going to develop a design for 150,000 schoolchildren’ when, in fact, by august 2013 there may not be that to start with.”
Add the fact, Pickler said, that Norris has vowed to follow through with defining legislation if the city and county cannot agree on the terms, fiscal and otherwise, under which new municipal school districts might acquire school infrastructure which is now the property of the county at large.
“The Transition Planning Committee has to take under consideration this new initiative by Sen. Norris. If we ignore it, Sen. Norris seems to have a plan to implement.”
Resolving these and other issues “is going to be fun,” Pickler said, with perhaps a shade of irony. “We live in interesting times.”