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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Education NewsTracker Tax and Budget

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.

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(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.

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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.

Education NewsTracker

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.

Press Releases

Kyle Proposes Repeal of Memphis-Shelby School Merger Legislation Approved Last Week

Press Release from Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, Feb. 17, 2011:

Senator defends local governments from overreaching regulation

MEMPHIS – As early voting began this week on the referendum to decide the fate of Memphis schools, State Senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) filed legislation to repeal the law passed last week that takes the decision out of voters’ hands.

“This bill will raise taxes on the people of Memphis while taking away their voice,” Kyle said. “This is taxation without representation.”

Senate Bill 855 would repeal the law hurriedly passed by Republicans during committee meetings held outside the regular schedule earlier this month. The law adds additional confusion to the March 8 referendum by delaying any possible merger for three years and allowing special school districts that would make such a merger impossible.

The law is the latest in a series of efforts by Republicans to enforce their judgment at the expense of citizens.

“Washington does not have all the answers for Tennessee, just like Nashville doesn’t have all the answers for Memphis. State government is supposed to be about making life better for Tennesseans, not worse,” Kyle said. “Telling someone that their vote won’t affect the final outcome is always worse.”

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Two Views on the Memphis Schools Blues

While the state House was passing a bill Thursday creating a transition period for a potential revamp of Shelby County schools, the rhetoric was hot on the issue down the hill from the Capitol between Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Sen. Jim Kyle.

Ramsey, R-Blountville, said it was a “landmark” issue and an opportunity for the state to do some good. Kyle, the Democratic leader from Memphis, said it was a pure power play by a Republican state government gone wild and facetiously said the next thing you know the Legislature would try to solve a fairgrounds issue in Nashville.

The bill passed in the House 64-31 along party lines, following Senate passage Monday night 20-10 in a similar party-line vote. It would provide a mechanism for transition that would go into effect in the 2013-14 school year. The Memphis City Schools board voted in December to hold a referendum on dissolving the city school district, allowing those schools to be absorbed into the county system.

Late Thursday afternoon the Memphis City Council voted to allow the Memphis City Schools Board of Education to surrender its charter. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that city council members indicated they still want the March 8 referendum to go ahead as scheduled and could rescind Thursday’s decision if the referendum asking voters whether to transfer administrative control of city schools to Shelby County fails.

Speaking in Nashville several hours prior to Thursday’s Memphis City Council vote, Kyle said race is part of the issue and called what the Legislature has done “educational redlining.” Ramsey said the state is only doing what it should do under its constitutional responsibilities. Ramsey also said the issue had been deemed racial but that he didn’t understand why.

Ramsey and Kyle spoke in separate sessions to a Tennessee Press Association conference in downtown Nashville, and each talked to reporters after their sessions. Kyle was visibly worked up over what he saw as intrusion on a local issue. Ramsey pointed to the fact there are 103,000 students in the Memphis school system and that the state had an obligation to help them.

Kyle questioned whether Ramsey would take the same position if the dispute were between Kingsport and Bristol, both in his district.

“What is it about a dispute in Memphis that gives you a lack of confidence that people can work it out?” Kyle asked. “That’s what this is all about, a lack of confidence that the citizens of Memphis can work out their problems themselves in a way that helps children.”

Kyle said it’s a case of state government stepping in, choosing sides and deciding it knows better than the local governments.

“We have never done that,” Kyle said. “There is something about Memphis and Shelby County to cause the leadership to decide that’s what they must do, and I would say quite frankly that race is part of it.”

Kyle said the city system realized it could no longer afford the school system and that the decision was made to be like school systems in other counties. He said the Legislature’s action is part of new muscle in a Republican agenda that says, “We are large and in charge.”

Ramsey, speaking before Kyle, acknowledged that he represents a district in Upper East Tennessee that is literally closer to Canada than Memphis. He said the Memphis city school board had essentially voted to “go out of the school business,” and that the decision in Memphis was similar to those in the past in Knoxville and Chattanooga and that there needed to be a plan in place for Shelby County.

“We need a plan. We need to make sure where we’re headed,” Ramsey said. “The Memphis city school system is by far — by far — the largest school system in the state.”

He said he knew people were asking why someone in Nashville who represents Blountville has an interest in what is happening in Memphis.

“Well, folks, we are required as a state to educate our children,” Ramsey said. “It’s in our Constitution.

“When I campaigned for governor, I said we had 17 high schools in the state of Tennessee that have been on a failing list five years or longer, and 14 out of those 17 are Memphis city schools. If we don’t recognize that we need to bring this school system to a new level, we’re never going to solve our problems statewide.”

Ramsey said the size of the system is an important factor.

“You can work on the Perry counties all you want to, you can work on the Humphreys counties all you want to, but if you don’t address what’s going on in Shelby County, you’ve got a problem,” he said.

Ramsey’s perspective was in stark contrast to that of Kyle.

“If we’re ever going to raise our test scores here in Tennessee, we’re going to have to address the problems in Memphis,” Ramsey said. “We can’t just merge one school system with another school system, re-elect a school board and expect things to be different. I’m encouraging the governor for us to get together and think outside the box on this.”

Kyle had a different take.

“This isn’t about failing schools,” he said. “This is about power and control and structure and funding. This is about redlining. This is educational redlining.”

Democrats have voiced concerns that the reason for the bill is so special school districts can be formed in Memphis suburbs.

Kyle made a remark about the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville, where city leaders have grappled with what to do with the property.

“The next thing you know the Legislature is going to solve that fairgrounds problem. Because obviously the people of Davidson County don’t have enough sense to solve that problem, so I guess we’ll just file a bill to fix that,” Kyle said. “Why not? I mean, we know it all. Republicans would say, ‘We’re the state government, and we’re here to help.'”