Shelby County board approves building transfers, settlement with two suburban districts

Shelby County’s school board voted unanimously Tuesday to transfer five school buildings to two of the six suburban cities that plan to break away from the merged school system.  The deal will cost the two districts, Lakeland and Arlington, $4.7 million.

The vote marks the beginning of the end of a single county-wide school system that some educators and politicians once envisioned would serve as an academically successful and financially-lean district for Memphis-area children and taxpayers. The merger of the two systems was one of the largest in the nation’s history.

“This is bittersweet,” said Kevin Woods, the president of the board. “As board members, we were elected to a unified school board.” 

Tuesday’s deal, privately negotiated over the last month between several government lawyers, will serve as part of a settlement for Memphis city council members and Shelby County commissioners who sued the municipalities alleging the split was de facto segregation.

“These documents are very deliberative, they’re very thoughtful, they’re very fair, and they’re reached in the spirit of compromise,” said Dorsey Hopson II, the superintendent of the merged system.

Board members said they hoped the agreement would be a template for settlements and deed transfers with the other four suburban districts that are looking to create their own school systems. Leaders from those towns will enter into negotiations with Shelby County leaders over the course of the next few weeks.

Arlington will pay $333,333 per year for 12 years, or $4 million altogether, beginning next November. Lakeland will pay $56,337 per year, or approximately $676,000 altogether, over the same period of time.

The deeds transfer the buildings from Shelby County Schools to Arlington and Lakeland for $10 per city. The buildings to be transferred are Arlington High School, Arlington Middle School, Arlington Elementary School, and Donelson Elementary School from Arlington, and Lakeland Elementary School in Lakeland.

Lakeland, which has just one school building, is planning to share a school system with nearby Arlington.

Board members took care to clarify that the agreement means that the suburbs are not paying for the buildings, but for the settlement. The money is to cover health care costs for retirees from the system.

The amount does not totally cover those legacy healthcare costs, but board member Teresa Jones said that it reflected an amount that would not cripple the municipalities as they began running.

Board member David Pickler said that tonight’s unanimous votes “represent a compromise” between members of the board, some of whom hoped to transfer the buildings and settle at no cost to the municipalities, and some of whom hoped that the settlement would cover more of the merged Shelby County Schools’ costs. Pickler, who represents Germantown, described the settlement amount as a “token.”

The agreement specifies that the transfer of the deeds will only happen once the towns have school districts up and running. If, for instance, the districts are not running schools by 2014, the transfer will not go through until schools are operating.

Planning for the new municipal districts has been ongoing since the legacy 100,000-student Memphis City school system surrendered its charter in 2011, forcing a merger with the legacy 40,000-student Shelby County school system.  That merger became official on July 1.

Both the merger and the plans for the breakaway districts have been contentious. The creation of new municipal school districts was initially deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge, but a new state law that passed last spring allowed the suburbs to go forward with their plans to create new districts.

The settlement is intended to mark an end to those battles. It aims to stem a lawsuit against the suburban towns from the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council that alleges that the new districts would re-segregate the county’s schools. Suburban leaders have vehemently denied that that is their motivation, saying they are interested in efficiency and preserving local control. The County Commission voted earlier this week to postpone a hearing about withdrawing the lawsuit until December, by which point Shelby County is set to have negotiated with the other municipalities.

In a comment period before the vote, some members of the public raised concerns that the plans had not been publicly vetted before they were approved.  They also alleged that the merged district was being ripped off by the municipalities.

The deal must be approved by the Shelby County Commission and local governments.

Superintendent Hopson said reaching this agreement would allow the board and the municipalities to begin focusing on students’ education rather than on the logistics of the merger and municipalities. “We have spent a lot of time talking about issues that aren’t student achievement,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to work together for benefit of these kids.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”