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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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