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Area groups ‘fine tuning’ plans for municipal school districts

While communities across Tennessee await the governor’s signature on two bills that will let them create new school districts, towns in Shelby County are making their preliminary plans.
“I’m trying to assemble information I need to proceed, based on the premise that the governor signs the bill,” said Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald. “We’re meeting this week, looking at all the aspects required once the bill becomes law.”
One of those on the team to create a new district here in Bartlett is Dan Byrd, who is a co-founder of Bank of Bartlett and a former member of the state’s House of Representatives. Byrd was chairman of the committee the city formed last year when communities in Shelby County tried to form their own schools.
He said the plan that the committee developed in 2012 likely will remain much the same as Bartlett prepares a school system for an anticipated August 2014 opening date.
“We will have to fine tune it,” said Byrd about the plan. “There are changes that will have to be made in the finance subcommittee. And with the changes in healthcare costs, we’ll have to look at that section as well.”
Byrd said they created a solid plan taken from the best policies at other districts, including Shelby County Schools. They were intending to use that plan, as well as the school board the community already elected, when a federal judge stopped the Shelby County community schools in their tracks.
The state hopes it has resolved those issues after both the House and Senate passed two bills last week that change a 1998 law prohibiting the creating of new community school districts in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has until Friday to sign those bills and make them laws, and most local officials said they believe that will happen.
Meanwhile, with the legality questions answered, logistics never resolved fully last year have community leaders asking new questions.
In Bartlett, for example, officials don’t know if Bartlett Elementary and Shadowlawn Middle School will become part of the Bartlett school district or that of an adjoining district, Byrd said.
“We assumed that were were going to have those students and created a budget that would take that into account,” said Byrd.
Other issues, such as the fate of school board buildings and how much the new budget might affect property taxes are other unknowns, he said.
“A lot of it depends on the final ruling of the buildings,” said Byrd. “It’s possible that we might have to lease space from churches, or something like that.”
Before the districts get to those specifics, the municipalities that want to form school districts will have to pass a resolution to have a special election this summer in which people in each community will vote on a referendum. If citizens chose to form the schools, they will have to vote once more to elect a school board.
Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman, who also is a Shelby County Schools board member, said officials in several communities believe that first vote will come in mid July, while the second election to elect a board would occur with the general election in November.
But once that board takes office, one of their first duties will be to select a superintendent who will guide the district on several policy issues. Officials said they want to make sure the new boards can focus on their superintendent search rather than the building blocks of each school system.
“We have a school planning committee in place to aid in that process,” said Wissman. “Some are educators, but some are PTA parents, community members. The former mayor is part of the committee, as are some of the school board candidates who were elected last fall.”
In Bartlett, Byrd said the city helped smooth that transition by appointing every member of the proposed school board to the committee.
“The only thing is, the ones who lost last time may not want to put in the time this time around,” said Byrd.
The committee has a lot of work ahead of them. Byrd said its possible that they will engage in discussions about sharing some services, such as purchasing or custodial, to help reign in costs. But compared to the last year, the districts won’t be as pushed to complete the task.
“What’s very special, we will have time, twice as much time as we had before,” said Byrd.
That means more time to search for superintendents, make decisions on buildings and services and selecting from what Byrd said he believes is an extensive teaching pool.
Still, Byrd said, the superintendent really is the key to creating the rest of the district.
“Once we know we are going to have a superintendent in Bartlett, he or she will go to work, hire his or her staff and get started,” he said.

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