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Haslam OKs Adding Municipal School Districts

The governor this week signed a bill pushed by suburban Memphis lawmakers that will allow outlying, often wealthier communities in Shelby county to create their own municipal school districts rather than remain in a county-wide consolidated district that also includes struggling inner-city schools.

The legislation was sponsored by Curry Todd in the House and and Majority Leader Mark Norris in the Senate, both of whom are Republicans from the Memphis suburb of Collierville. It passed 70-24 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.

Before the law was passed, Tennessee maintained a ban on the creation of new municipal school systems in towns that didn’t already operate one. This rule, the bill’s sponsors argued, was too rigid and outdated to accommodate classroom innovation and school choice.

“This is a bill that all Tennesseans will be proud of,” Todd said during debate on the House floor. “It gives parents a choice about educating their children and where they want their children to be educated.”

Only three Democrats in the Tennessee General Assembly voted in favor of the bill. They were Sen. Reginald Tate, who serves as chairman of the Shelby County state legislative delegation, along with Reps. Antonio Parkinson, also from Memphis, and John Tidwell of New Johnsonville. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, abstained from voting in the House.

Only one Republican in each chamber voted against the legislation: Bill Dunn of Knoxville in the House and Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga in the Senate.

Dunn predicted that the change in law will result in children from outside a local school’s taxing jurisdiction attending a particular school inside of it. That situation will likely in time create resentment among parents who reside inside the district, said Dunn, and that may well lead to their demanding that the parents of children outside the district pay their own way to attend– or, alternatively, that those children be prevented from attending.

“If this does go into effect, we are going to see some problems down the road,” Dunn said just prior to the House floor vote on the measure April 15.

While the new law technically applies to the whole state, it largely grew out of a contentious decision by the Memphis school board and residents to dissolve their school district in favor of being absorbed by the county.

Many residents in outlying communities balked at the idea of having to help support Memphis’s poor-performing public schools and worried that stretching funds to include them would lower the quality of schools already in the district. The bill allowing towns to create their own, separate school systems was seen as a way to address those concerns.

But that prospect doesn’t sit well with some lawmakers, especially the largely Democratic delegation from the city of Memphis.

One such outspoken critic was state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, who spoke to TNReport shortly after the bill passed the upper chamber earlier this month.

The law, Kyle said, would “lead to a balkanization in all our counties where economic areas that are superior to other economic areas will want to have their schools systems all to themselves. Now I’ll be looking at a county with seven school systems and I don’t see how you have any unity that way.”

Kyle, the Senate minority leader, brushed of the call from supporters to increase flexibility and choice. “That is just some effort to justify the reality — the reality being people in the suburbs not wanting to be with people in the city,” he said.

Now that the governor has signed the bill into law, municipalities can start the process of creating their own school systems which includes holding local referendums and meeting certain readiness requirements from the State Board of Education.

TN School Districts Flunk Transparency Review

The school district websites for Memphis, Jackson-Madison County and Sevier County flunked a nonprofit group’s review on financial transparency.

A lack of online budget and contracting information or reports on academic progress contributed to those school district’s ‘F’ grades from Sunshine Review, a group that promotes government transparency. For its report card scores, the group checked websites for information like current and former budgets, phone numbers and email addresses for board members, and audits.

In announcing its grades Tuesday, the group gave a particularly disapproving glare to the Memphis City Schools website, finding “the search function rarely generates relevant results,” and “eventually the website crashed.” The Memphis city schools are set to merge with Shelby County Schools next year.

The Clarksville-Montgomery County School System emerged as a bright spot in the report. The district earned an A-, the highest grade among Tennesee school districts reviewed, for making readily available current and archived meeting agendas, budget and tax information and graduation rates. For anyone who can’t find the information they need, the steps to filing a public records request were posted.

Sunshine Review gave a D+ grade overall to the 11 school district sites it reviewed. The website said the state as a whole did better, scoring a B in a grade weighted heavily by information available on state government.

View the list of scores and an explanation of how the review was conducted here.

Restrictions on Tennessee Charter Schools Officially Eased

Maybe it was because she was standing in front of more than about 100 people.

Maybe it was because, in her youth, she hasn’t done much public speaking.

More likely, it was because the heartfelt words she was saying about why she likes being a student at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis drew out her deepest emotions, with tears rolling down her face.

Eighth-grader Money (pronounced Mo-NAY) Johnson stole the hearts of the crowd Wednesday when Gov. Bill Haslam appeared for a ceremonial signing of his charter school bill, part of Haslam’s education reform package that passed the Legislature this year.

Haslam was supposed to be the main attraction, but it was the students, especially Johnson, who made the biggest impression. She began to say why she wanted to attend Freedom Prep.

“I wanted to come to Freedom Prep for the education,” she said. “I wasn’t getting the same education and love … ” And she stopped. Tears welled up. “… from my other school.” And she stopped again to wipe her eyes.

After several uneasy silent moments, the crowd broke into applause.

Young Johnson eventually gathered her thoughts and said she liked the working environment at the school and that her teachers take the time to make sure she knows what she needs to know to pass a test and go to college. It brought another round of applause.

The charter school debate did not end Wednesday at Freedom Prep in Memphis, but the stakes were clear. The state is searching for answers in education, and the new law is designed to give charter schools an opportunity to prove they can successfully play an ever larger role in turning Tennessee education around.

Haslam actually signed the bill days earlier, but his choice of Memphis for the ceremonial bill signing was no accident.

Memphis has the most charter schools in the state with 25. Nashville has 11, Chattanooga 3 and the Shelby County system 1. A charter school in Knoxville has been approved but is not expected to open until 2012.

The bill Haslam proposed, which passed 22-9 in the Senate and 72-18 in the House, lifts the cap of 90 charter schools in the state and allows any student in a charter school’s jurisdiction to attend. Further, an Achievement School District, which tries to turn around failing schools, can now authorize charter schools.

Chris Barbic, who has a charter school background and was recently chosen to head an Achievement School District in Tennessee, with four schools in Memphis and one in Chattanooga, attended Wednesday’s signing ceremony.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run by not-for-profit organizations. The schools are noted for their autonomy but also face accountability and can be closed if they do not perform.

“This really is an important day. As you can tell by the parents here and the students, this is one more alternative. It’s not the answer for everyone, but having the ability to expand our charter schools is important as we seek to continue to move Tennessee forward,” Haslam said.

“I don’t think you’ll see massive growth, because quite frankly it’s hard to do. You’ve got to come up with a physical plant to meet in. That’s the hardest part about charter schools. I don’t think you’ll see an incredible multiplication, but I think you will see growth. And if you’re a parent and this is the best alternative for a child, this makes a huge difference.”

Charter schools made for only one piece of Haslam’s education reform agenda this year. He also pressed successfully for teacher tenure reform and the extension of Hope scholarships for summer college classes. While Haslam ultimately signed onto the collective bargaining legislation that ended with a “collaborative conferencing” plan with teachers, the union bill was not part of Haslam’s original education agenda.

Critics of charter schools say the schools get away from the original intent of helping struggling students and take away from the strength of the traditional public school system.

Freedom Prep opened in 2009. It has been for grades 6-7 thus far, but its planned reach is for grades 6-12.

“It’s a school that gets us ready for college each and every day. They never step down. They keep us going,” said Jareth Austin, who, like Johnson, will be in the 8th grade this fall. He wants to go to Morehouse College and the Air Force and be an architect. “They keep us smiling.”

Haslam said Wednesday that students from low-income families will still get the priority on charter schools. He emphasized that charter schools will have the same level of accountability as other schools.

But the concept creates its own challenges, such as how to create charter schools in rural areas.

“That is a fair question, because you’re drawing off of a smaller population,” Haslam said. “It’s either going to be the school system or an Achievement School District that approves them, and it’s the state’s responsibility to make certain we are not harming any existing schools. They are more difficult in rural schools, just to be factual.”

He was asked why there aren’t more charter schools in Knoxville, where he served as mayor for two terms before becoming governor.

“You know, I’m not really sure,” he said. “There have been a couple of applications. There are two or three in the works now that I think will get approved, but for whatever reason historically there haven’t been the charter school operators who came out and could work it out.”

State legislators who attended Wednesday’s event included Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Rep. Mike White, R-Memphis; Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis; and Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis.

“The key provision of this legislation is that now every child in Tennessee is eligible to attend a charter school,” Kelsey said. “And that is a huge expansion and is very much needed and will allow thousands of new children new opportunities.”

Mike Morrow is a correspondent for TNReport.com, an independent nonprofit news service supported by donors like you.

Memphis-Shelby School Merger, Cont’d

A court hearing to untangle the legal mess that is the merger of Memphis city and Shelby County’s school systems proceeded this week. Memphis news outlets say the judge in the case spent much of Thursday quizzing the lawyers for the various governments involved in the case.

Judge Hardy Mays is sorting out how the local referendum to merge the systems, a Memphis City Council vote, and state laws – including one passed this legislative session to guide the merger – work together and how the consolidation should go forward.

The lawyer for the Shelby County Commission, Leo Bearman, argued that the merger was authorized by a Memphis City Council vote approving the school board’s surrender of its charter. He told the judge that a state law, named for its sponsors Sen. Mark Norris and Rep. Curry Todd, had no bearing on the process, the Memphis Flyer reported:

Bearman argued further that a subsequent referendum by Memphis voters … was essentially symbolic and secondary to the Council action and, most intriguingly, that Norris-Todd was irrelevant to the process because its mechanics were based on the incorrect assumption that (Memphis City Schools) was a true special school district rather than a municipal district without taxing authority.

In Memphis Merger, Here Comes the Judge

A judge has decided to personally mediate the talks between governments over the consolidation of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, talks that one party has described as futile.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays ordered the Shelby County Schools, Shelby County Commission, Memphis City Schools, Memphis City Council, city of Memphis and state Department of Education to appear today, indicating that he would handle the talks directly after a court-appointed mediator failed to make headway, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Steve Mulroy, a county commissioner and law professor at the University of Memphis, said judicial mediation enhances the “arm-twisting” ability of a judge. The judge can signal strongly that he’s inclined to rule a particular way in order to nudge one or both parties from their stalemated positions.

The parties disagree over the process for merging the two systems. The city, council and commission seek an expanded county school board now, while Shelby County Schools favors a plan passed by the legislature and keeping the Memphis City Schools board as-is until the consolidation process is completed.

County Commissioner Walter Bailey, who represents the commission in the mediation, said the talks so far have been “futile.”

“If this new mediation process does not work Mays’ first order of business would be to decide whether to let the commission move ahead with appointments or grant an injunction sought by five of the seven county school board members to keep the appointment process on hold,” the Memphis Daily News reports.

Shelby County Commissioners Spatting Over Merger Secrets

Shelby County commissioners can’t withhold documents from a fellow commissioner, who has created political enemies there by opposing their plan to enlarge the county school board as it absorbs the Memphis school system.

That’s according to an opinion from the county attorney’s office recounted today in the Commercial Appeal.

Commissioners voted 8-1 early this month for a resolution allowing them to reprimand or withhold written information from anyone who spills secrets.

A violator would still be able to attend confidential meetings with the commission’s lawyers.

The obvious target was (Commissioner Terry Roland), who walked out of a closed-door meeting with attorneys in February and told waiting reporters what was going on.

Memphis Charter Schools’ Funding Squeezed

Charter schools in Memphis have seen their funds reduced, in some cases by half, as a political tug-of-war between the Memphis City Schools and City Hall plays out.

The city is withholding money owed to the schools system, and the schools in turn have decreased payments to charter schools, which are publicly funded even though they operate independently.

“Some will have to take loans to meet payroll. Others wonder if they can stay open,” the Commercial Appeal reported this week. On Wednesday the newspaper’s editorial board bemoaned the situation, saying “financial foot dragging” will affect the students’ ability to perform on standardized tests. They also point out, as we have, that the pending consolidation of Memphis City and Shelby County schools will bring more uncertainty for charter schools.

And with that, the voters in Memphis may be glad they decided earlier this month to dissolve the district and cede responsibility for educating the city’s youngsters to the county system. Sadly, there seems to be no such “eject” button for Memphis city government.

(VIDEO) Ramsey on Mending Memphis Schools; Teachers’ Union ‘Mediocrity’

The Memphis City Schools turmoil presents a seize-the-opportunity moment for the state to step in and make dramatic improvements in the city’s troubled public education system,  Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday during his weekly give-and-take with the Capitol press corps.

Ramsey said the attempt to merge the city school district with Shelby County Schools would be politically difficult. Instead, the state should take over the system, the Blountville Republican said.

Ramsey cited figures showing more people working in the city school system who do not teach than do teach, and he said he learned that the system has more than 500 automobiles.

Ramsey said the figures show that the school system is inefficient.

Memphians this week voted in a referendum to surrender the city school system and merge it with the county schools.

Ramsey said simply redrawing lines and electing new leadership for the schools will not solve the problem. He said the system is failing.

In his press conference Thursday, Ramsey said it would be better to seek someone who could turn the system around rather than merge systems.

“I’m adamant that we need to take this opportunity, seize upon that opportunity,” he said. “If we’d gone down to Memphis and said, ‘Look, over half your schools are on the failing list, (and) we’re going to take this away from the school board and we’re going to start operating this by the state’ — that they would have done that kicking and screaming.

“But the school board has now voted to go out of the school business; the people have now voted to go out of the school business, so this is an opportunity that I think we need to seize upon.”

State lawmakers have already stepped in to extend the process for a potential merger of the schools over two years.

Gov. Bill Haslam has said the Memphis schools predicament presents the possibility of opening more charter schools, an issue he has made part of his overall education reform package.

Ramsey told the Tennessee Press Association last month that the state needed a plan for Memphis because the school system is by far the largest in the state.

The Shelby County controversy comes at a time the state is making broad changes in education. Coming off the Race to the Top success in obtaining $501 million in federal funds for education in 2010 under the administration of Gov. Phil Bredesen, Haslam has proposed reforms that would change the tenure system for teachers, lift the cap on charter schools in the state and have lottery scholarships go toward summer classes.

Haslam Talks Memphis-Shelby Schools Merger

Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday there could be a role for additional charter schools as the Memphis City Schools merge with the system in Shelby County.

On Tuesday, Memphis voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin dissolving the city schools system and consolidating it with the county schools.

Haslam has proposed a handful of policy changes to boost charter schools, including removing the cap on the number of charters granted in the state and creating an alternate path for charters to be approved — currently local school boards decide. He said about a half-dozen schools in the Memphis city system could be converted to charters through this alternate path, approved by a planned state apparatus called an achievement school district.

“There could be a role for additional charters to play,” Haslam said at a press conference at the Capitol.

Haslam said the vote creates an opportunity for innovation.

“We take this as a real opportunity to say in this discussion …. What’s the right way to run this system? What are all the different resources we can bring to bear?” he said. “And we hope to be an active participant in those discussions.”

The details of how the merger will be implemented are still murky, and legal challenges are likely.

Memphis City Schools, RIP

Memphis voters have approved by a 2-to-1 margin the merger of the city schools with the Shelby County school system.

But as the Commercial Appeal points out, now the real test begins:

Many oppose the plan, there’s no timeline for carrying it out and it will almost certainly be mired in the ongoing scramble for control by city and county officials, school leaders and legislators.

People on both sides of the issue agree that ultimately, multiple judges will decide when or whether to consolidate Memphis City and Shelby County schools. Tuesday’s vote will likely set off a new round of court challenges, in addition to lawsuits that have already been filed.

Memphis city leaders will likely challenge a new state law from Sen. Mark Norris, which delays the merger to the 2013-14 school year. Also, the county school system is challenging the county commission’s plan for a unified school board for the consolidated systems.

Since the December Memphis City Schools’ board vote that set the stage for this week’s referendum, much of the debate has centered on money — who gets what share of the tax dollars for education and how that balance could change.

Shelby County leaders have sought to make their system a “special school district,” which would allow the county to keep more tax dollars instead of having them redistributed in the larger Memphis school system. Norris’ bill “opens the door (in 2013) for creation of special school districts and municipal school districts in Shelby County, although further legislative action would be required,” according to the Commercial Appeal.

Some Memphis residents have said “that the predominantly white and more-affluent county school system didn’t want to take on the struggles of Memphis, which is predominantly black and has a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch,” Education Week notes.