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    Merger team hears about Chattanooga

    Despite fears, they say city benefited

    Zach McMillin - The Commercial Appeal -

     

    Leaders involved in the consolidation of Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools in the mid-1990s told the Shelby County schools merger transition team Thursday that their community "undeniably, unequivocally and irrevocably benefited" from it.

    Chattanooga's decision to dissolve its city system not only forced a process that brought improvements to both city and suburban schools, it also fostered a "can do" spirit of cooperation and togetherness, said Jack Murrah, a former head of one of the city's top philanthropic groups.

    "I was wrong to be against it at the start ... We're a better school system today and our children are learning more than they were," said Murrah, who was joined by former city school principal Edna Varner, current school board member George Ricks and former county superintendent Jesse Register (now head of Nashville Public Schools).

    But the path toward a successful unification will be beset by fear, political landmines, cultural and racial mistrust and funding challenges, they told an audience that included several members of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Also present at the University of Memphis's FedEx Institute were local philanthropists Pitt and Barbara Hyde, whose own Hyde Family Foundation helped fund the event.

    Murrah also promised another obstacle: "And that is sabotage. I'm just trying to lay the dead cat on the table. ... Some folks who don't want things to happen, really don't want things to happen."

    As some members of Shelby's 21-member transition commission and its 23-member unified school board pointed out, their task is complicated by "a legal out," as board member Kevin Woods characterized the possibility of municipal school districts popping up.

    A federal judge's order requires the county's current two districts, Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, to merge for the 2013-14 school year. They remain separate until then; after merger, a new state law allows for the lifting of the state ban here on municipal school districts.

    "You can look at some of our neighboring states and see how dysfunctional it's been," Register said, referring to communities with pockets of municipal districts. "It's not productive, but you have to deal with it. It is your reality. I can't tell you how except to say you need to win people over."

    Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell picked up on that theme in his closing remarks: "Even (municipal leaders) have said they have two viable options. ... Let's make this the preferred option."

    While the Hamilton County merger lacked the pressure of more suburbs opting out, there was a small but real exodus of students, said Register. He attributed it to a delay in implementing a new school assignment plan until the second year of merger.

    One of Register's main recommendations was to commit early to new student assignment plans, to remove an uncertainty.

    Another recommendation, from Ricks and Register: Quickly identify and bring on board the unified system's top leadership.

    "By next summer," Register said.

    Ricks said city leaders like himself initially were wary of embracing a white superintendent like Register, who was hired 10 months before merger was completed. Yet, Ricks identified the decision to bring in a completely new superintendent from outside as one of the biggest keys to what he said has been a very successful merger.

    Register and Murrah both talked about the opportunity merger provided for radical "cultural" change for both districts. Murrah described the city district pre-merger as striving for innovation but "handicapped by its own longstanding culture."

    The suburban district Murrah called complacent and with a "culture of self-satisfaction" over success he said was often due to "students' entering characteristics."

    "So we became one community saying every kid needs to be stretched as far as they can be stretched," Murrah said.

    Varner said "I thought eventually it would feel OK but would take a long time," Varner said. "But one of the pleasant surprises was that it felt good very early on."

    -- Zack McMillin: (901) 529-2564