Behind the Headlines — May 16, 2014

Behind the Headlines — May 16, 2014


(female announcer)
This is a production of WKNO-Memphis. Production funding for
“Behind the Headlines” is made possible in part by.. The continued creation of the
new suburban school systems tonight on
“Behind the Headlines.” [theme music]
♪♪♪ I’m Eric Barnes, publisher
of the Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. We are joined tonight by two new
superintendents from two of the new suburban school
systems, Dr. Ted Horrell from the
Lakeland school system. Thanks for being here. Thanks for
having me. (Barnes)
And Tammy Mason, superintendent of the Arlington
school system. Thanks for being here. Very happy
to be here. (Barnes)
And also, of course, Bill Dries, senior reporter with
the Memphis Daily News. I’ll start with you, Tammy. So you are how long in the job? And what are your
first priorities? And where do you go from here
sort of taking over a school system that sort of exists but
is about to take a whole new shape. Yeah, well I’m a
little over four months. I started in January
7th was my first day. We’re at a good spot right now. We’re looking in the next
two or three weeks of getting possession of the buildings. But probably the biggest
advantage that we’re at this point is that we’ve been able to
identify the students that we’ll have and the number of teachers
that we’ve been able to offer teacher positions at this time. So I think that’s the biggest
feat that we’ve had thus far in the last four months. Right. We’ll come back to
a bunch of those. But for you as well, you’re how
long in to the job and what are your priorities right now as
you’re at this strange point where you’re just about to
take over the school system? Sure. We’re on the
exact same schedule. We started the same
day just coincidentally, January 7th. We have also offered intent to
hire letters to our teachers and notify the
classified staff, you know, that they will have positions. So we’re really kind of
trying to wrap up a lot of the operational things so that when
we take over the buildings on June 2 that we’ll be ready to go
and we can quickly assess what needs to be done to get
ready to open the doors. And we’ve had, from the
suburban school system, we had John Aitken
on from Collierville, one of the bigger ones. We’ll have the others on. You two are both from the.. It was scheduling more that we
had you together but also kind of similar
communities on the smaller end. Your budget and staff
will be, give or take, what? Our budget is a
little over 36 million. And we’re looking at a student
enrollment between 48– and 4,900 which is higher than
what the initial projection is. Staff — we’re looking at a
little over 400 employees. (Barnes)
And just to give the grounds. (Horrell)
Sure. We’ve got one school,
Lakeland Elementary School. So our school system
budget is around seven million. (Barnes)
That’s peanuts compared to.. Exactly! More money, more problems. We’re dealing with a
much smaller scale. So there are challenges
and advantages there, for sure. We’ll have about 85 staff total. And we expect to
have between, you know, 830 and 850 students. (Barnes)
Okay. Bill? We’re so close from your
perspective to the opening of schools here. And actually, the school
systems get started officially, I think, with the
July 1 fiscal year. So tell me a little bit about
what it’s been like over these last few months to create a
school system because this is not the merger in reverse. You all have created school
systems from the ground up, a structure that
didn’t exist before. (Mason)
Well I think where we all started at, you know, one of the
things that has been very helpful is that we have all
worked closely together on this. We meet weekly. And where we started was
that first meeting was just identifying all of the areas
that we needed to look at and what our options were in
building those whether we were looking at
creating those in-house, whether we were looking
at contracting services, whether we were looking
at doing something shared. So I think that’s
where we started. Where we are now is those
decisions have been made. We put price tags with those. We put it together in a budget
and all of us now are taking those budgets to our
board members and to our city governments. But that probably was the
biggest challenge at first was just looking at and prioritizing
what all needed to be done. (Horrell)
And you’re right when you say starting from scratch and that
there was almost nothing that we could assume would continue to
happen without some decision or action or phone call or
contract renewal or something. There were no items that
would just continue to be. So we spent a lot of time
in our meetings saying, “Have you done this yet? “Have you looked
in to this yet?” And it’s been so
helpful because we all, you know, are helping each other
make sure all the things that have to be done are done. And by the same token, you
have to be more than a few steps ahead so that when
the school year starts, you’re at least kind of already
thinking about is there gonna be growth in students
next school year. How do you start
planning for that? So you’re kind of already
thinking about the next school year and what kind of
growth might come down the way, correct? Sure. It’s a typical part of your
yearly process to update your five-year plan. So we’re, you know, and
even think beyond that. So we’re both having to
work with our planner, our shared planner to kind of
make some of those decisions and projections. And you each got some good
news from the Shelby County Commission. You each have some
capital funding coming, which you each had needs and
have more needs beyond that, I would imagine. Yes, we were very happy
obviously to get that. For the last few years, all
of the schools in the system’s C-I-P budget had been deferred. And so we were very happy
and very glad the spirit of cooperation that existed in
order for all of the schools to receive those much needed funds. And this was the 50 million —
50 give or take million that went to the County Commission. And at first, it looked like it
was all gonna go to the Shelby County school system. Then they did
carve out, I think, some five million or so. (Mason)
They did. Do you see.. How do you see that
process working in the future? This was a little bit of a weird
year in that you don’t quite exist. And there’s still just one
school system technically but we all know, you know, what’s
going to happen in a few weeks. In the future, I mean
you look forward to, dread? It’s just part of the job to
go to the County Commission and say, “Here’s what we
need and here’s why.” (Mason)
Yeah, I think certainly. I think the next years will be
a little bit different because right now, we have to had to
have the spirit of cooperation with Shelby County because all
of our schools are currently Shelby County Schools. Next year we will
be our own system. And so the process will
be a little different. We’ll be going seven different
school systems instead of the one. So that’ll be the
biggest difference. Don’t really dread it. You know I think its part of
the process and part of the job. (Barnes)
Yeah. And from the other big.. You know there were a
lot of question marks. It became clear that the
suburban schools are gonna break off. The attendance zones and the
kids in maybe unincorporated areas, kids moving
from school to school. Do you feel.. I’ll start with you. Do you feel like
parents are happy, you’re happy with the way in
which that’s going to work? With minimum disruption or more
disruption than you wanted but you had to take it. How do you feel about that? Our situation is a little
different in that almost all of the students that attend
Lakeland Elementary live within the Lakeland municipality. So our school zone essentially
is the municipal city limits. We do share an
attendance zone with Arlington. We have some students that live
in Lakeland that attend Donelson Elementary and, you know,
continue to be zoned there. But from our perspective,
what we have not had, you know, a lot of discomfort
with that process because it stayed pretty much the same. (Mason)
Yeah and from Arlington’s perspective, it has, I think,
opened up parents’ choice to.. They have a choice
in where they go. Currently, we have over 700
non-resident students that have applied and have been approved
to attend Arlington schools, which do not live in either
the Arlington or Lakeland city limits. And then additionally, we have
over 70 Fayette County students that have enrolled that will
be paying tuition to attend our schools. So out of county,
they pay a tuition. In county, does the money — the
state money follow the child? (Mason)
Correct. In county, all of the money,
both the state and the local funds follow the child. Out of county, the state monies
follow them but the local funds do not. So that’s where the tuition
comes in is to make up for the local funds. There was a, you know.. It’s kind of annual tradition —
the big headlines about teachers who, in the big
school system, who are, I don’t know. What’s it called?
— waitlisted. They’re unsure
where they’re gonna go. And there a couple
hundred of them. And there’s always
a lot of, you know, well, it’s so unfair and it’s
terrible for those teachers. And there’s other
people saying, “Well no. “If we can’t afford them, if we
don’t have classes we don’t want “to pay those people. “We feel bad for them.” Was there any impact for your
school systems with the teachers? Did you get the
teachers you wanted? Etcetera, etcetera. Yes, I think that process went a
lot smoother than anticipated. For Arlington, we were able to
offer all teachers that wanted jobs with the
exception of three. There was only three
that we had to reduce. Three out of, again,
you said it before. We have over 400
employees, about 380 teachers. (Barnes)
Okay. (Horrell)
We actually cut one preschool classroom which had to
do with the staffing needs at that level. And then there were two
assistant positions that were cut as well. And did you get.. Without naming names, did you
get the teachers you wanted? I mean do you have that
flexibility as administrators? Because that’s part of the big
debate about that big pool is the way tenure has changed, a
lot of this is changes from the state. It doesn’t have anything. It gets muddied up with the
merger but it was unrelated that now school systems in Tennessee
generally have more flexibility in saying I want the
highest performing teacher, not I don’t have to start with
the most senior or most tenured teacher. That can be a very
controversial thing. But for you as administrators,
would you rather have the highest performing
teacher regardless of their.. (Mason)
Sure. I think we all would say all of
the leaders in school want the highest performing. This year is a little bit
different than I think next year’s will bring because of
the formation of the municipal districts that we had to make
sure that there were laws that were governing the transition
making sure that the rights and privileges of
teachers were protected. And so we were very careful as
we were crafting our policies to make sure that we were in
align with that at the same time balancing and making sure
that we have the most effective teachers. And so it was a little bit
of a balancing act this year. But we’re confident that we were
able to retain those teachers in Arlington. (Horrell)
Yeah, we feel great about our staff. We’re really excited at the
school level and at the district level about who’s coming back. But in the past, you
all were both principals. You were at Germantown
High and Millington. There were times in the
past I imagine — and again, we’re not naming names — that
you were compelled to take a certain teacher that you did not
want to have because they were tenured. And you might have had a
young, rising star type teacher. I hate to say young but a newer
rising star type teacher that just you couldn’t use. It was kind of last
one in, first one out. That was kind of prevailing. (Barnes)
And that must have been frustrating. Yes, it was
frustrating at times. (Mason)
Yeah. We used to have seniority,
what used to be the gauge. And now its seniority is
with all other things equal. Then you look at seniority. First thing is how are they
performing in the classroom. How are their kids performing? As a former principal, that’s
refreshing that we’ve gotten to that point. (Barnes)
Yeah, okay. Bill? So with your experience
in the school system, just in general, how
has this been different? And are there things that you
have the ability to change once we’re kind of out of this
initial period of the formation of the school system? I had an interesting
conversation recently where I was sitting with somebody that
was working on technology in the schools. And she made a suggestion about
a way that — something fairly mundane — about the way
we’re going to process forms. And she said, “Well instead of
making these copies we could “just do them online and make
them auto fill and they’d send.” And I said, “Well that
sounds like a good idea.” And she said okay. And I said,
“Well let’s do that.” She said alright. You know it was just
very different because, you know, we made a decision
for the whole school system, you know, which previously,
you might have had to take it through committee or
take it through a vote, a bunch of different steps. So there’s certainly some
things you can expedite. And it’s got to be exciting to
see the way you can hopefully at the end of the day make life
easier for the teachers and make it easier for them to
focus on instruction. That’s our goal. (Mason)
And I would agree. You know when you’re looking
at the systems are on a much smaller scale that most of the
needs are very similar versus what they would be
in a county system. And so you have the ability
to temper those decisions more directly with what the needs
of your small school system is versus having to look at
what all the needs more at, you know, 100 plus schools. And that gets to the whole thing
that Bill mentioned as we’ve talked about before that
it isn’t a reverse merger. I mean it isn’t. Although we talk about
the suburban schools, you all are
separate school districts. I mean is
Arlington, is Lakeland.. Are they actually better off for
having gone through this very tumultuous and
frustrating and a lot of people, painful and confusing process
over these last few years of forced to merge and
then break apart? Are your communities better off
with even smaller school systems than were three years ago? I think our community was happy
in the Shelby County pre-merger because it was still a
fairly smaller system. I think the concern
came from increasing that, over doubling that. Better off? I think they’re very
happy where they are now. I think that they’re
happy with the local control. You hear that a
lot, local control. I think that this is where
ultimately they wanted to be. I don’t know if the
merger hadn’t happened, if we would have
gotten here at this point. (Horrell)
Yeah, yeah. I think there’s a lot
of excitement over the opportunities to have teachers
and certainly having more influence, more input over
what’s happening at the district level. It feels a lot
less like, you know, top down kind of management. There are a lot of cases
where I am and I know Tim is. We’re going back
to the teachers, back to the
principals and saying, “How do you want to do this? “What’s the best way? “What makes the
most sense for you?” And even in a system the size
of the old Shelby County system, that was just impossible to get
total feedback and total buy-in in to things. And it is possible now. Right. And in the case of
Lakeland and Arlington, the communities, they’re
both growing communities. And I’ve heard some of the
suburban mayors talk about this that the school systems will
have their own influence on that growth and on the
nature of those towns. Is it too early to tell yet
how you think that might unfold, what the impact might be
on the larger community? (Horrell)
Sure. Maybe too early to tell
but the scope of the impact, I think we both agree that
this will fuel growth in both communities. They both have been growing
communities recently already. But you know we know that
housing patterns are driven in large part by education. And we think if we have
the best quality schools, which, you know,
we think we will, that that will drive some of
that growth and people will make decisions about where
to live based on that. (Mason)
And Arlington has, I think, in the last couple years have
been in the top, this last year the second fastest growing city
in Tennessee and have been in that spot for the
last two or three years. The property values have
increased when we got the certified tax rolls. Arlington property
taxes had increased. So I think that’s certainly
the expectation of the city. And looking and talking with
the mayor and the alderman, I think it’s changing the
way that they possibly may do business. And looking at the growing, what
different business will they allow to come in to the city
that maybe previously they wouldn’t, knowing that those
businesses are important to support a school system as well. Because in the
case of Collierville, Collierville started out pretty
early looking at a new school. That’s still several
years down the road. Bartlett decided to go with a
ninth grade academy to deal with some of the problems
in their high schools. Do either of you have those kind
of problems right out of the gate in terms of bulges in
your student population? (Horrell)
We obviously.. We depend on
Arlington right now. All of our students are going
to go to Arlington Middle School and Arlington High School. Arlington Middle School is
pretty close to capacity. Over capacity at
this point, yes. So they’ve, you know,
they’ve guaranteed seats for our students. So we’ve got an immediate kind
of need to address there for both systems to where the middle
school students are going to go. So we’re engaging in a kind of
feasibility and needs assessment study to figure out what’s
the best plan to address that. (Dries)
Right. So do you plan for a new
middle school in that? You two obviously have to
work closely together on this. (Mason)
Yes, yes. At this point though, I think
Ted and I talked a lot about this. And obviously if Lakeland
determines that they will build a new middle school, which we
both expect that need is there, then obviously that will relieve
the numbers in at Arlington Middle School. So there wouldn’t be a
need to build that school. As high school, I
think we’re good. Arlington High School is
the largest high school, physical space, in the state. Arlington High School has
been up to 2,500 students. Right now we’re looking at
probably being a little over 2,000. So in Arlington, we do not feel
like we have an immediate need to build or add
on at this point. (Barnes)
And those cost money. I mean that’s a whole part of
this that is a fiscal side of it that is new to
these communities. And I think Lakeland, you know,
had to have a property tax for the first time. I mean do you feel
the weight of that, the pressure that
came with, “Hey, we’re gonna have a big property
tax or a big tax increase being sales or property
to make this happen. School systems get expensive. And you know there
are raises every year. So how do you manage that? How do you manage the expenses
and relationship with the local communities? Because now it’s all on them
or it’s very much on them. (Mason)
Right, yeah. I think that it’s
certainly a partnership. Obviously none of us have any
desire or do we have a need right now to
raise taxes further. I think we’ve all committed
to having balanced budgets. And we are all there. And that’s very important
obviously to our cities and towns. I know speaking for Arlington,
our city government is very much involved in the process and
wants to support schools but at the same time, making sure we
are fiscally responsible in the decisions that we
make within our budget. Yeah, you know,
initially the question was, I think, can these communities
afford to have their own school systems based on
their parameters. You know, we knew we
were gonna have to, you know, change the local
option sales tax and the property tax. And so the question became
can they really do that. And I feel like we’re answering
the question with a resounding yes. Yes, we can afford to do that. So at that point, the question
becomes we can afford to have the kind of school
system that, you know, that we need. If there’s a difference in
the school system that we want, that might cost more money. And then what’s the desire
of the community in terms of supporting that? I think that becomes kind
of the longer term question. (Barnes)
And you do get.. You know, it hit me
with my first job. My first reporting job was a
small town in Connecticut and I covered a lot of
school board meetings. And I remember the
superintendent sitting in little school systems and they’d go
through with townspeople in the budget meeting saying,
“Now why is that? “Why is your bus, you
know, number up 40,000?” And the school
superintendent would say, “Well we have a
special needs student. “So that’s actually a bus.” And that would
cause this huge spike. And that maybe is the good. The citizens of Arlington and
Lakeland are real close to you all. And it isn’t like sitting in
a budget meeting over the, you know, multi-hundred million
dollar Shelby County school system. It isn’t even like the
smaller school system. It’s real close to home. And fluctuations are
going to be noticeable. (Mason)
Right and exactly what you described, that actually
happened in Arlington Monday. We had a joint budget meeting
between our board and the board of Mayor and Alderman and those
exact kind of questions came up. Wanted to know why this line
item and you can track it back to a certain student
need or transportation. I will tell you the thing that’s
probably assisted us the most, I think all of the districts, is
the shared services that we’ve embarked on. It’s something new. No other school systems in this
state have embarked on something like this. And so we feel like we’re doing
ground-breaking work in this area. For people who don’t know, what
services will be shared and how will that work? We are sharing — and Ted,
help me with us — nutrition, Power School which is our
student management system, transportation, with the use
of our supervisor and routers, our I-T services.. Our business management
system which is A-PEX, our benefits. You mentioned that one. (Barnes)
There was some controversy. Germantown wasn’t necessarily
going to participate. You all have been
working real closely together. John Aitken was on the
show talking about that. Did you just strong arm Jason
manually in to saying you have to do this? I mean how did that play out. Well I can tell you Jason has
always been on board for doing that. The six of us, when we met
in January and February and developed this plan, we all were
in agreement that the shared services would be an all-in or
an all-out because it would be very difficult to start
picking and choosing. Because obviously the number
of districts in each of those shared services
fiscally impacts the others. Because we do it
according to students. And so, you know, that just
becomes part of each of us working with our
boards and, you know, us doing our job and how those
services affect us and don’t affect us. (Barnes)
Yeah, yeah. Bill? Just five minutes in show. That’s another point that I
think people miss is you in effect deal with two
legislative bodies. You deal with one more
regularly than another. But you have funding form the
county commission which involves submitting your
budget to them as a total. They don’t have
line item control. (Horrell)
We actually will submit our budgets to our local funding
authorities as who has to approve those before
we go to the state. (Dries)
Right, right. So you deal with two
political bodies in the process. Actually as a superintendent,
three including the school board. So there are
different tiers here. How do you decide what is an ask
of the county and what’s an ask of your commission in your
case and your Board of Mayor and Alderman? (Mason)
Yeah, at this point, we’re committed to living with what
is required under state law. And so at this point, we don’t
feel like there’s a need to go ask for additional
funds above that. Now in the future,
could it happen? It could. But I think we’re all committed
to working locally with our city governments in that respect. In terms of the start of school
that’s coming up in August, everybody’s gonna start school
in the same day at least at the outset here to
retain some consistency. What are you each telling
parents about what that’s gonna look like? You know our hope is that
when the students come back to Lakeland Elementary School that
things for the most part feel the same. Hopefully they
feel a little better. But we’re telling them there’s
not gonna be a lot of crazy changes. I mean we’re gonna.. Our job is support the teachers
and make sure that we got great instruction going on
in the classrooms. So, you know, we hope things are
easier in terms of communication and access to
information and those things. But for the most
part, our core business, we’re hoping we just, you
know, keep trying to get better. (Mason)
Yeah, and I think that’s consistent. That’s really been on mantra
all along is making sure that there’s as little change
as possible to get started. And we want it smooth. (Dries)
And I would guess the parents have
a message for you. And the message I’ve heard
from a lot of parents is I hope nothing really
significant changes. (Mason)
Yes. Beyond what usually changes
from school year to school year. (Mason)
I think there’s certainly an understanding on
maybe some bumps just as with
any school year. But I think that they’re looking
forward to the first day of school. Quick, just two
minutes left in the show. Something unrelated to the
merger or de-merger is Common Core. Just a quick thought. I mean it’s gotten to be a
very politicized issue for some people, a very
controversial issue. I’ll just go. What is your take
on Common Core? Are you
implementing Common Core? Are you glad to do so? Yeah, you know, the state
has always been the body that determines what the state board
and what our curriculum will be, what the standards are. We do have control at the local
level on how to implement those instructional strategies
and things of that nature. Yes, we are implementing Common
Core as every other district is in the state. But we do have some flexibility
on how that’s implemented. And are you happy
with that balance? (Mason)
You know I am. I think that a higher
expectation for students are a good thing. I think we need to make sure
that we continue to monitor and govern that. I think certainly the
expectations for students and being more involved in the
process versus just sitting back and being a sponge absorbing
something instead of being engaged is a good thing. And your take on Common Core? Our board has expressed some
concerns about Common Core. They’re certainly
watching it closely. Like Tammy said, that is the
curriculum of the state’s. So we will implement it. But she also said we’ll kind of
depend on our teachers to make sure that that instruction
is happening appropriately. And some of those concerns
that the board expressed were? Just some concerns about what
they feel like is a loss of local control over
education itself. You know, should that be
something that’s determined at that high level or should we
have more flexibility to make those decisions ourselves. Okay. Well thank you for being here. That’s all the time we have. Thank you, Bill. Thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. Goodnight. CLOSED CAPTIONING
PROVIDED BY WKNO-MEMPHIS.

Author:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *