Beyond the liveshot: My observations from endless merger meeting coverage…

Should teachers be worried about their jobs?


That’s the short answer.  But how many jobs will be lost, or job descriptions changed will be to differing degrees under the possible scenarios.

First let’s talk about Shelby County Schools teachers in the (likely) event of municipal school districts.  All teachers, and principals, would have to reapply for their job.  That means if you love your child’s teacher, he or she has to decide if they want to leave their tenure and accrued benefits to join the new (untested) school system. 

Some will not want to leave, which leaves the municipal school districts looking to the youngest and most inexperienced teachers, or recruiting from outside the area.  (Which is an expenditure not considered in the muni schools start-up costs, by the way.)  This also means a surplus of teachers in the new unified Shelby County Schools.  They will be combined with existing Memphis City Schools teachers to compete for the jobs in the old no longer existent Memphis City Schools.  Are you following?  That means layoffs. 

Next lets talk about the possibility of the “path to autonomy” model school system.  This means schools or groups of schools would be able to hire non-profits to run the schools instead of the centralized superintendent.  That means charter organizations, churches, municipal foundations, or any other non-profit would run the schools.  These organizations are not in the practice of using unions.  That means all the teachers currently at those schools would have to reapply and leave the union.  Union life as teachers know it today, would be over.

Charter organizations typically treat their teachers more like corporate professionals than the typical “union teacher.”  They often work from 7am until 4pm.  Students (and teachers) often attend schools through mid June and head back in late July.  And they are not paid on a set scale based on tenure and degree like in unions.  If you are better, you get a raise.  If you are outstanding, you are put on the track to run a school.  There’s no extra job protection for length of stay at a district.

Also, path to autonomy would mean major layoffs at the administrative level.  Nearly all school governance would happen at the school level.  The need for a “cabinet” of high level officials and support staff  just wouldn’t be there.  Plus, the big pot of money to pay for all that administration would be gone, the dollars follow the student to the charter school. 

The other option is the “unified model.”  This keeps operations at the “new” Shelby County Schools pretty much like it is now.  Except things need to change or the money problems will continue to worsen.  Governor Bill Haslam has made it clear he wants more charter schools in Tennessee.  He has hired a state superintendent to be in charge of taking over failing schools and turn them into charters or charter-like schools.  It’s already happening.  Six schools in Frayser and North Memphis are on this path.  Teachers will have to re-apply for their jobs and be willing to work a 7am-4pm shift.

As Tennessee continues down this path, the district will have to resize the administration or die.  The administration already denied more than a dozen charter schools because they couldn’t afford to have the per pupil dollars follow the student to the charter.  That will not be allowed much longer.  The Governor and state legislature have made it clear, it will only get easier for charters to get approved.  Right now school boards must approve charters; legislation us being discussed that would eliminate that requirement. 

Education is changing.  And the teachers will feel it the most.  Jobs will be lost.  The unions will be left behind.

Path to Autonomy: Why the suburbs are about to look a gift horse in the mouth

By considering the “path to autonomy” plan for the consolidated Shelby County Schools, the transition planning commission is taking advantage of the idea “we can start from scratch with this new school system.”  And what they’ve come up with is exciting, even to someone like me who has no kids.

The PTA (path to autonomy, because I don’t want to type it out 100 times) is very forward thinking.  It lets the good schools shine under community control.

Under PTA, high performing schools could apply for autonomy.  To do this, 60% of the parents, or 60% of the teachers just have to vote to change into a charter school.  Once that happens, the school will find a non-profit to run the school.  Proven educational non-profits are no longer a rarity, just look at KIPP and Gestalt Community Schools.  The non-profit could even be a church or, wait for, a municipal group, for example “Germantown Community Schools 401c3.”  The non-profit would have a contract with the school district, and as long as it continued to perform well, it would remain autonomous.

Under the PTA the school would have total control of its own educational plan, hiring of teachers, and budget.  It would receive all the state money that used to go the big district pot of money.  And it would remain, for free, in the current building that will remain the property of the county.  The autonomous school could buy back from the unified system things like busing, nutrition, and legal services. Current state law says that the students currently enrolled in a school when it becomes a charter have priority if they want to remain at the school for the first year.

Even childless, downtown resident, me, is excited.  I envision turning Downtown Elementary into a phenomenal charter where I could send my non-existent child someday.

Sounds good right?  Autonomy, neighborhood preference, freedom from bureaucracy….  Wrong.  The suburban municipal cheerleaders are already saying “no way!”  And they have some legitimate reasons.  After a year, charter school enrollment becomes open enrollment, which means anyone in the county could enter a lottery to go to your charter school.  Also, the unified school district must approve the charter and re-approve it every year to remain autonomous.  And we don’t trust them right?  They did deny more than a dozen charter last year because they didn’t want to give up the tax money.

But things appear to be turning in favor of the PTA autonomy model.  Did you know David Pickler is behind it?  Yes, that David Pickler.   The David Pickler who wanted permanent borders between Memphis City and Shelby County Schools.  He says the Tennessee Charter Schools Association and local legislators (I’m sure you can guess who) are also on board with the PTA model. 

Changes I predict we will see:  First, preference given to neighborhood kids.  A type of “zone plus” system.  Once a school becomes a charter, it can keep its traditional school zones, and if there is room, a lottery can be held for those extra spots.  Second, I expect charter approval from the Unified School Board will no longer be needed.  As long as the academic performance and the vote of 60% of the parents or teachers is there, your charter is granted.  And no re-approval is needed either, as long as the academic performance is there.

But if I know the suburbs, they aren’t waiting around to see if these changes are made.  Even though they don’t need to be made this year.  This year the school systems are still different, and next year current enrollment is guaranteed by state law.  That gives lawmakers two years to tweak the system.  And we have very fast acting lawmakers around here if you haven’t noticed. 

But I predict the suburbs will go ahead with municipal schools anyway.  They will pay in taxes for what could be free.  And its going to cost a lot more than the consultants are saying.  State law says an automatic 15 cent hike in the property tax or equivalent is needed.  But I predict much more will be needed. I highly doubt the school buildings will be totally free for municipal districts.  Even if they end up that way, it will take a lawsuit to get them.  And there’s a legal opinoin out there saying the county does not need to give funding to municipal schools.  (Yes, MCS got county funding.  But MCS was a “special school district” not a municpal district.)  Plus the municipalities haven’t even considered a state mandated “raining day fund” or the lack of federal funding for children with disabilities.

But municpal schools are your right.  So go for it!  It’s your right to pay for what is being offered for free.  And soon it could be my right as a Memphian to get an autonomous Downtown Elementary, free of charge.