Closing the Information Gap on Memphis School Merger

Closing the Information Gap on Memphis School Merger

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MEMPHIS--A sense of uncertainty looms over the city of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee as the countdown gets closer to the official end of the Memphis Public School District and the official beginning of the Unified Memphis-Shelby School District.

Considered the largest merger of school districts in the United States, the federal courts ordered the consolidation due to a historic pattern that divided the two school districts on racial lines between city and suburban schools. But communication between district authorities and local communities about the change has not gone smoothly.

The unified Memphis-Shelby County school board last week gave tentative approval to a resolution to dissolve the Memphis City School System by July 1, 2013.

If the resolution is approved on July 1, "all policies and procedures of Memphis City Schools will be abolished and all students and employees will follow the policies and procedures of [what is officially known as] the Shelby County Board of Education."

Merger Ordered by Federal Court

According to a federal district court order the merger has to be completed by the start of the 2013-14 school year. But even before the merger is complete some major questions remain, including whether the current name, the Shelby County School System, will remain.

Other questions include whether Memphis County School employees who live outside of Shelby County will have to move into the county to keep their jobs, as required by Shelby County, and whether former Memphis schools will be treated fairly by the new board of education and administration.

A transition team of educators, political and community leaders have been working for well over a year to ensure the merger goes smoothly, though it appears the work will continue long after the July 1 deadline. The Transition Planning Commission, meanwhile, has developed a website laying out the transition plan for the public.

Despite its efforts, however, a wide information gap persists. A roundtable of ethnic media outlets, school officials and advocacy groups recently discussed how to improve the flow of information to their constituents.

Despite years of debate on school consolidation, Mauricio Calvo, director of Latino Memphis, said that many Latino families aren't even aware that the transition is happening.

“It’s like a drama unfolding, but we don’t have a clue,” he said. “We just need to work together and do our homework,” he said.

Attendees at the meeting said they came away with a better understanding of how each other functioned and the meeting opened up new avenues of communications.

“This was a great meeting,” said Staci Franklin, public relations director of Memphis City Schools. “It allowed me to hear from some of the media outlets on what their challenges are and how they like to receive information. Now I can take that back to my staff and we can start looking at ways in which we can reconfigure our work to assist the media in covering the school district.”

Franklin admitted during the meeting that Memphis schools only distribute their information to media in English, often overlooking the needs of Hispanic and Asian communities that rely on in-language publications. She said they would look into the possibility of having their information translated before it is distributed to foreign language media.

That was good news for La Raza Editor Francisco Correa, who stressed the need for better understanding between the school system, its education partners and the Hispanic community.

“It [the meeting] also got them thinking more about the Latino community,” Correa said. “I'm sure after this we're going to start building a new relationship with the school system and other partners.”

Media Criticized—and Praised

Still, not all were ready to welcome the media’s role with open arms.

One school board commissioner, Tomeka Hart, who serves on the Unified Shelby County Schools Board of Education -- a combination of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County schools – expressed an oft heard frustration with reporters.

“You can tell who was at the school board meetings, or who just reported what they read,” said Hart. “If you are doing a broadcast on two paragraphs in the paper then you are getting the story wrong.”

Education reporter Natasha Chen with local broadcaster WREG in Memphis attended the meeting. “I’d like to put a face to the issue,” she said, “especially the struggles of the kids.”

But for most media outlets, full-time education beat reporters are a rare breed.
Karanja Ajanaku, executive editor of the Tri-State Defender, an African American weekly newspaper, said the paper will be publishing a school-choice guide this year and instituting a digital daily to get information out to its readers more quickly.

“I have to know where the stories are. I was hoping to meet more people who are out there in the field so they can know where I am, how to get to me and to let me know what's out there. I rely a lot on the people in the community for copy,” Ajanaku said.

But, he added, “I'm not that juiced about the merger. We had a number of challenges that teachers are facing, and the students and I don't see that being addressed yet.”