Behind the Headlines – Feb. 15. 2013

Behind the Headlines – Feb. 15. 2013


>>female announcer: This is a production of WKNO, Memphis. Production funding for “Behind the Headlines” is made possible in part by.. A conversation with members of the unified school board about the decision to pursue separate schools and the impact of a major budget deficit tonight on “Behind the Headlines.” [instrumental music] ♪♪♪>>Barnes: I’m Eric Barnes, publisher of The Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. We’re joined tonight first by Bill Dries, reporter with The Daily News. Tomeka Hart from the unified school board. Thank you for being here.>>Hart: Thank you.>>Barnes: Billy Orgel, chairman of the unified school board. David Reaves, also from the unified school board. We brought you guys on. There’s a lot to talk about the progress on the budget and we’ll get to those issues. But on Thursday, bills were filed up in Nashville and the state legislature that would allow the creation of special school districts, suburban school districts, whatever technical term we want to use. And so, I want to get your thoughts on that and how the possibility now, yet again. I’ll start with you, Billy, as chairman of the schools and the municipal schools which at this moment are under your umbrella- may be able to separate off in a year or so. How does that change what you’re doing?>>Orgel: Eric, I think we can control what we can control here in the community. So the things we can control is we can vote as we, the city of Memphis, did to give up the special school district status or give up the charter. We had earlier this year or late last year, the municipalities voted to have their own school districts. It was disallowed by the judge. And what happens in Nashville, of course, we can weigh in on. We’ve got elected representatives in this community. But ultimately, they’re going to make the decision and we’re going to have to abide by it.>>Barnes: Is it a better school system if they stay in?>>Orgel: I don’t know that you could say it’s better or worse. The truth is if you turn the clock back and good people sat down and negotiated in good faith, we probably wouldn’t be sitting on this program. We’d be talking about another issue facing the community. And we’d still be sitting with the Memphis City school system and a Shelby County school system. >>Barnes: Tomeka, let me bring you in. You’re from the-a key member of the city school system. I’m going to mess some of these things up. But the city school system-You were a key vote in forgetting- letting go of the charter and triggering this merger. What is your take on this likelihood now or this possibility now that the suburbs can finally get what seems to be their wish which is to break off?>>Hart: So, I think that first, many people have misunderstood. I will speak for me. My issue really wasn’t we just needed to be one big school system. The issue was we needed an intact county school system to protect funding for county wide funding of education, including those children who are in Memphis City Schools. So, you know, I happen to believe that we will be a better community if it was one school system but, you know, I think that people in communities can decide for themselves what they want. And so, you don’t hear my fighting against municipal school districts. You don’t hear me saying they shouldn’t this. I mean, I think that, um, what the judge said was based on the law that was written in 2011 that couldn’t happen. The judge didn’t say you can’t have them. He’s saying you need to create a better law. And so, I do think that the law that was created was hastily done and that’s what we have-the issue. You know, that’s why it couldn’t be created now. But I mean, I think that you can’t tell a community what they can and can’t do.>>Barnes: Is it-I mean, there’s still a lot to be determined here. So, we’re kind of reading tea leaves in terms of how this could take shape with the suburbs breaking off. But are you comfortable? Back to your point of you would prefer that it was a county-wide system. It doesn’t need to be but the whole trigger of getting-I don’t know how to say it but-getting rid of the city school system was about funding. Are you comfortable that the funding will be there if these municipals schools..?>>Hart: And the reason why is because now, there is still a county school system. I mean, if you look at Tennessee, you know, in some areas where there’s no county school system, there’s no county-wide education tax. And so, for us, it was-There needs to be a county school system intact. And if Memphis City Schools had stayed as a special district and then what was then the county system had become a special district, there technically is no county system. And there could be all kinds of things that would happen.>>Barnes: So, even though the county system could end up being essentially the schools that the city had, the funding mix is different in a positive direction from your point of view.>>Hart: Right, constitutionally, there’s still a county school system.>>Barnes: Alright, let me- David, thank you for being here. We’ll get you in one this. You represent Bartlett on the unified school board but you live in Bartlett. That’s one of the areas that wants to break away. We kind of joked before the show that if that happens, you sort of get carved out of this school board you’re now on. What is your take on it? Do you think that it’s a positive move for the areas like Bartlett to be able to break off of this county-wide school system that you’re a member of?>>Reaves: Well, I think it’s a positive move, actually, probably for the entire county because most of these cities have decided that they want a smaller education system closer to the people. And if they don’t, then they will take whatever other matters in hands to do that. And that’s either to move out of the county or do something else- go to private school. And I think that on the whole that that would hurt our overall economic and funding picture for the entire Shelby County School district. So, I think it’s really important that this issue is addressed. I think if these municipalities want to do that, then I think they should be given the ability to do it.>>Barnes: How is being on the board? How long have you been on the unified school board?>>Reaves: Well, I’ve been on just as long as everyone else has for probably about a year. But I’ve been on the board itself for going on three years now.>>Barnes: Okay, and how? The last of the planning, all the transition planning, the looking at budgets-and we’ll get in to some of those details. How has that influenced your views of this? I mean, do you think it’s even more important that Bartlett and other municipalities break away or do you actually see how – Wow, you know, for all the difficulty, we could make this work if we’re forced to?>>Reaves: Well, I think that one of the issues we have with funding is that the old Shelby County school district had a very rich staffing model- staffing formula which amounts to about 80 million extra dollars a year. And what that is doing is that basically is somewhat inflated the unified school districts new budget number to 145 million. If the municipal districts were allowed to break away and most of those schools and their staffing formulas are within those schools. So, that could significantly reduce the funding gap, particularly in the Shelby County school board.>>Barnes: Okay, Bill?>>Dries: We have as of the vote that you all took last week or this week, we have a $145 million extra amount of funding that the board has voted for at this point. I’d like to get your view, each of you, because I think you all have at least slightly different views. Are you going to get that extra funding from the Shelby County Commission? We’ll start with Tomeka.>>Hart: Well, no. And so the point was the request was we need to take to begin the conversation. And I’m a lawyer. I’m of the point when you start the conversation, you start it with what you need. So, how do you start talking cuts if you’re not even talking about what you need? And so, no, we’re not going to get 145 million but that was not the point. Now, if this was taking our final budget to the Shelby County Commission for approval, then we would have had a different conversation. But that was not the conversation. The conversation is what do we take now for this retreat. So, most of us agree. Take what you need and then you get from them what you know they realistically can do. And then, we come back and start talking about what we cut.>>Reaves: I agree with Tomeka. You know, I don’t believe were going to get $145 million. And I don’t believe $145 million is the number. From my view point, the reason for supporting that number was to me, it reflected the true cost of what it would cost to level up the entire district to Shelby County’s current standards.>>Barnes: And that gets back to what you call the rich number of faculty, the student-teacher ratios that the county schools- the traditional county schools- have had?>>Reaves: Yeah, exactly right. Now, as I’ve been a conservative, I absolutely–$145 million tax increase. That’s against my principle but I just wanted for people to understand that that’s what the cost of this merger is to the district. And we need to look and see what’s the best way to address that.>>Dries: Billy?>>Orgel: I’m not a lawyer. I’m a realist. And those two things are naturally opposite. But what I was going to say is that, uh, we’ve got a short timeline to get this done. And I said it the other night is let’s be realistic. We’ve got a lot of people that have worked very hard. Our staff-They’re under a lot of pressure. They’ve already said themselves they’re going to have a 26 percent reduction at least in salary. I don’t know how that equates to people. And so, we’re pushing people out of their jobs and we’re letting them write how they’re going to be out of their jobs. They’re working overtime. They’re working hard. They’ve outlined it. The TPC spent 10 months outlining it before this. Now, we’ve spent the last seven months looking over it and it’s time to be realistic. And the county commission asked to do it early. We did do it early and I felt like we should have given them a more realistic number because politically, there’s no way that they’re going to have the votes to ever raise it more than a certain amount. And you can just debate-discuss that. And we talked earlier. We’re going to have a property appraisal decrease in this county. And there’s going to have to be a tax increase just to maintain level service at the 402. So, it’s going to have to go up some just to get back to that point with the property.>>Dries: So, if, as your premise is, there is a set number that is probably already out there in terms of what the extra funding will be, how does the school board get to a point where it eases the very real concerns that popped up about the staffing levels and the staffing formula which, I think, county school parents and city school parents feel it a real classroom issue in terms of funding?>>Orgel: You got, uh-It wasn’t like we walked in to the meeting last-was it Tuesday? That we walked in the meeting last Tuesday and it was like a big surprise. “Oh my god-These are the numbers!” I mean, we all had the numbers. And a lot of us individually that could, had the time to do it. And that was staff. We had a budget retreat. I mean, we’ve gone over these numbers. We all knew this was coming. I mean, there was an RFP, which wasn’t delivered. The numbers-There was no savings delivered last week on that but there was an RP on custodial to outsource it’s savings. They’ve gone through all the numbers. We all knew what the numbers were and where the options were going to be. I don’t think that everybody fully understood what the county commission can do or politically could do to fund education fully in this community.>>Barnes: There’s so many parts to this but let’s stay with the student-teacher ratios right now. You, Tomeka, are going back to the city school system. You know, you hear about a better or a lower student to teacher ratio in the county schools and the costs to bring that kind of ratio up to in the city schools. I mean, that’s kind of what you want-right? Or is it not?>>Hart: Well, we’ve always wanted. So, it’s not all of a sudden, the merger has made Memphis City Schools like this. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. Like we’re just sitting back. You know, we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re just waiting to see what the county schools have done. The Memphis City Schools ratio is higher because we’ve been facing cuts for the last six years. We have been cutting the budget. So it’s not like we decided this is the model that we should have. It is we have not gotten county funds increased since 2007-2008. So, yes. We’re where we are because we’ve had to cut. And so, I think it’s, you know, this community has to decide what kind of school system. And it’s also slightly disingenuous to just say all of this is because of the merger. Both districts were facing strict cuts. Shelby County has dipped into it’s savings a whole lot and even without the merger, it was going to have to go ask for more money because it couldn’t fund even what it needed without additional funds. So, it’s not that all of this is merger-related. But Memphis City Schools have always wanted a better ratio. But you can only get what you can get funds for.>>Reaves: So, there’s another issue kind of on the table on top of this and this is the urban education delivery model. And part of the reason why the expense and Memphis City Schools is so great is just because we have so many schools and so many are underutilized. And over the years, we’ve not been able to get to the point to where we have a more-larger schools full of more children and more educational programs. And so that is an expensive model that is not sustainable, as well, and something I think that we have to look at over the next several years.>>Barnes: But what is your take on that? Because that gets back to the TPC recommendations. And things have been talked about for years. And the city school system-the old city school system talked about. But, you know, I think the TPC recommended 20 schools from the city be closed. What is your take on that?>>Orgel: I think that was no surprise. I mean, to me I can tell you that there’s a list that they’ve worked on for years. And there’s been a slow attrition of schools and school closures in Memphis City Schools over the last five years.>>Barnes: Would you like to see it go faster?>>Orgel: This is what I really like to see. Instead of just putting a number on it and a dollar figure and then working your way towards it, I’d like to look at the communities where the schools are in, where they’re located; figure out if we-how the feeder pattern looks. If the elementary schools are not feeding the middle and the high schools, we need to put- And the county has a good model on this because the populations spread out and you had a central high school. If we’ve got seven, eight high schools in Southeast and Southwest Shelby County and they’re underutilized, let’s find an opportunity. And it might cost the community money but let’s put a facility centrally located that can be a larger high school that, as David said, is more efficient. And let’s offer the AP courses. Let’s offer the other extra- curricular activities that schools throughout the county- White Station, Whitehaven, Ridgeway, Southwind, Arlington, Collierville-are offering. Let’s not make our children suffer in a two, three, four- hundred person-we’ll use high school in this case where they don’t have the activities that they need.>>Barnes: Because, you now, when I hear that, I’m sure there’s people out here who listen and say, “Well, that sounds great but we just talked about there’s not the $140 million to do..”>>Orgel: Capital money is different.>>Barnes: Okay, so, both can be done.>>Orgel: So, I think both can be done. And it’s actually probably more efficient and better for our children in the long run than to do it the way that we’re doing it. And it needs to be community- wide. Everybody needs to study it. And it needs to be thoughtful. it doesn’t need to be us sitting in a board meeting and striking a pen and scratching through this one and playing games with people’s lives.>>Barnes: Your thoughts? Your nodding here, Tomeka. On the school closure question and the shifts in the population.>>Hart: So again, you know, I think people act like the TPC, in all due respect, the TPC and the merger all of a sudden revealed all of these issues. We’ve been talking about we have a list of 50 schools in Memphis City Schools that need closure. In what community do you just close 50 schools and then you don’t look at the other aspects of how that’s going to harm a community. So, we have yet to do any kind of comprehensive planning community wide. And it’s not true that there are no schools in the county that are under utilized. So, this is a county-wide issue. And that’s where there is 50 school systems or two school systems or one school system. As a county, we should say this is what the delivery of education should look like if we’re saying this is the best model, right. And so I think I agree completely with what he just said. But that’s not what we’re doing. So, just to say close 21 schools-Well, how does that fit in to the bigger plan of the community? What really should it look like and I really do think we need to completely redefine these communities.>>Barnes: I’m cutting off Bill here but I’m going to do one more question here which is- So, we talk about these things and we all have a general agreement about these things in principal. But is it maddening to you as board members that in fact, what you spend so much of your time doing is dealing with the unknowns caused by the court case, the ongoing court case. Now, the bills being introduced. I mean, do you wish you just knew what your landscape would be? Back to how you started, Billy. We deal with what we’re, you know, with the hand we’re dealt but you still don’t know what that hand is because there’s so much uncertainty. Because I remember Doctor Cash talking about closing schools right before the merger and everybody was getting fired up and everybody was talking about it. But it was beginning that dialogue you’re talking about. And now it’s been sidelined for two plus years.>>Hart: Well, he wasn’t talking about- I mean, the number was 50 that meet the criteria that we establish for school closures. What we were planning to do was come back, look at those 50 and then kind of talk about really what Billy was describing. Let’s look at these communities. How can we reorganize? What can we designate?>>Barnes: But what’s it take to get there to start that conversation? You have to get all this other stuff out the way.>>Orgel: No, I think we made a step. I said that a meeting ago that- and I think I’ve asked you and Mr. Woods because and it’s not because they were newly elected board members and I know they’re going to be there. So, it’s easier to ask two board members and I know they’re going to be there at least past August to do this. But to start bringing the community together to make-to have this discussion and to plan. And I think,–what was? We had this before-Needs assessment. Yeah, we had that before and we need to get back to that model and we need to work with the mayors of everywhere that might have underutilized facilities and it needs to be a community- wide discussion with the county mayor and the municipal mayors and the school board.>>Barnes: Bill?>>Orgel: And staff.>>Dries: Um, is there any thought that as we talk about leveling up, as we talk about a plan for schools, that this needs to be phased in over three to five years as opposed to trying to do this all at once.>>Reaves: Absolutely and, um, I wasn’t a big fan of bringing a big number to the board and saying, “We’ve got to have all of this year.” What I wanted to see was a three to five year phased in approach where we did bits and pieces. We did the things that were required up front, leveling up to make sure that we took care of any inequities and then over time, bringing in the rest of those. And if we had to have more funding over the course of the next two years, we could reassess that. We may or may not need it. But from my viewpoint, if you’re looking at the staffing model and you asked, is it going to be logical? Are we going to get 145 million? We are not going to get $145 million and there are going to be people who are going to lose their jobs on both sides-both in the classroom probably and probably potentially even within our support services. So, I think that’s something that we’re-a realistic view that Billy even spoke to earlier that we’re going to have to come to on both sides and say, “You know what, we’re going to have to close this gap this year.”>>Barnes: But to some extent, I mean, that’s proponents of consolidation, be it on the city-county government level or education level. They’ve pointed to that. I mean, you know, airlines, private sector-they point to consolidation that is savings. And no one individually likes that specific person to lose their job. But if there’s duplicate effort, that’s what ahs to happen. Are the cuts you’re talking about a lack of funding or are they unnecessary in positive step because there’s duplicate services, duplicate people?>>Reaves: I believe in the services side of it, I believe there could be some positive. I do not think it’s positive in the school-In the classroom, in the school period. There may be things not going on in the classroom. You have councilors who are going to be cut in this particular. You’re going to have nurses. You’re going to have assistant principals. And in the county, there has been a struggle just to maintain the level of service with what they have today and it’s the richer staffing model. So, I think that yes, we have a funding problem, as well, that we need to get a handle on over time because educations getting more expensive. And we’re having to invest more money, particularly since we have kids who are coming who are needier and who need more services.>>Dries: So, on August 5th when my child goes to what had been their city school or their county school, is it still going to be pretty much like it was in the current school year that we’re in?>>Hart: I say pretty much is the answer. So, even with the 65 number, the numbers that the staff came back with whether is some staffing changes. For teachers, it maybe one or two. So you may have had a ratio of 25 and now you’re going to 26, right? Now, as a former teacher, that’s just-One additional student can be, you know, make it very challenging. But I’ve also taught a class with 35 kids in it. And so, we don’t want anybody with that number. But it’s not as if in either system, the ratios going from 25 to 33-right? So, it’s about one or two children.>>Barnes: David, your take, I mean, because difference in forms lately. A little more suburban focus. Parents getting really upset talking about drastic changes in the classroom. They promised us that it wouldn’t change but it’s going to change. Is it your sense that the classroom by and large, the schools will be similar to the start of 2012 in 2013.>>Reaves: I don’t think you’re going to see drastic changes. I think I had a meeting with some principals because I went right to the source. How would these cuts impact your schools? I need to know. And the cuts specifically that they talked about really hammered them hard on all of the professional development, all of the standards that the district is trying to enforce, all the testing. When you start cutting assistant principals out of those roles, then it puts a lot heavier burden back on the teachers. When you start cutting education assistance out, when they can’t take kids to the bathroom or a kid has a problem, then that cuts time out of the teachers teaching classrooms. So, there will be some amount of impact to some schools. And I’ve noticed, particularly in these formulas that the schools that I talked to, the middle schools were hit the hardest and the neediest ones. And so, that is a concern for me.>>Barnes: Let me ask you a question and I’ll put you on the spot as, you know, representing all suburban voters and residents which isn’t fair but I’ll do it anyway. Um, you talk about the richer model and the needs and the kids. And the urban areas have greater needs. It’s expensive. So, let’s say that this plays out and that the suburban schools like Bartlett where you live are separated back out. But you as a county resident are going to be funding the city schools at a level probably you weren’t in the past. Are you comfortable with that?>>Reaves: I’m absolutely comfortable with that because the reality is, is that all the school systems have to be great, even the new Shelby County school district. Even though I live in Bartlett, my kids would go to the Bartlett city school system. if that happens, it is important for the economic development. It’s important for the social development of this community that that school district be just as great. So, I have no problem funding that.>>Dries: Mister Chairman, we began by talking. Billy, we began by talking->>Orgel: That’s what my wife calls me.>>Dries: We began by talking about negotiations. Should the county-wide school board, even though it’s not a part of the court case, have been involved in the private settlement talks between the county commission and the suburban leaders?>>Orgel: I mean, I guess it’s like you selling your house and the person was going to buy it and some other party negotiated over it not asking you any questions about it. So, I mean, I felt like in one part of the case, I understood that. But if you look through it, they were talking. And I read it post in the paper. And your paper, too. And I read it-what they were agreeing to. Well, we were going to have to agree to it. So, you can’t just lay it in front of us and say, “Okay, we’ve spent three months negotiating. “You guys go agree to this so we can settle the court case that you’re really not a part of but you’re the beneficiary of whatever the decisions going to be.” So, I think we should have been but I understand why we weren’t and I maintain and Tomeka can say this, too, because she was part of it. Go back to the beginning three years ago when the funding issue came up. The city of Memphis was presented with giving up their charter. I felt like that we need more leadership in this community that could have sat down, worked this out. And it was a funding issue. It’s nothing more than that in my opinion. And we would not be sitting at this spot today.>>Hart: And we spend a long time working on it. We spent eight months trying to get single source funding. We have spent a lot of time trying to get and it just didn’t happen. That’s just the bottom line. And so, this was people felt, “Oh, I don’t have any other choice,” because we can’t get any agreement on anything. But I also say that this board, this unified board passed up an opportunity to get involved because we had discussed briefly about trying to join in to be part of it. And people said, “Oh, I don’t think we should do that. “We should just let them see what’s going to happen.” And so, we’re suffering the consequences of that decision- this board deciding not to be part of it.>>Barnes: Your take on that? I mean, how could things have been done differently over the last three years?>>Reaves: Over the last three years? Wow!>>Barnes: With this whole issue.>>Reaves: I just think that we all should have come to the table and I think we could have very easily allowed these other districts to happen. And we could have definitely agreed on the funding issue. I think there are the right people at the table now to make it happen. Before, I think maybe we didn’t have all the right players to do it. But I think we do now. And I think we have people who are willing to work together on both sides.>>Hart: Please let me just clarify here. I’m saying the merger would not have happened if we could have gotten special school district off the table, if could have did the eight months of single source funding that we were trying to do that still kept the districts. But the truth of the matter is the Shelby County board wouldn’t budge. And so, what were we supposed to do?>>Barnes: Alright, fair or not, you’re getting the last word on that one. We are out of time. Thank you, Billy Orgel, Tomeka Hart, David Reaves. Thank you, Bill Dries. Thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. Goodnight. [instrumental music] ♪♪♪

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