When Billy Orgel went to the School Board building to talk to Memphis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash and Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken, he was surprised. He went through security to see Dr. Cash, then had to leave the building and go through security on the other side to talk with Dr. Aitken. “There is a walkway between the City and County School buildings. I said, ‘Can you open up the passageway to walk over to the other side so each can talk to the other?’ They did,” he said, finding it emblematic of the job he has been entrusted to do.
“I got drafted,” said Orgel, the newly selected head of the Shelby County Schools Consolidation Board. The lifelong Memphian had not expected to be anything but one of the 23 consolidation board members. He does not have a background in education, but is a businessman who with his partners build cell towers. But he took the job, he told members of the Lunch Hour Republican Club assembled at Salsa restaurant Thursday. “If we don’t get this right, the whole community will flounder,” he explained.
Orgel faces a daunting task. One that many would not like to tackle. On the one hand, County residents were apprehensive that the larger, urban system would lower their standards. Many in the city fear they will be overpowered. Then he will have to tackle the fears of municipalities that want to start up their own systems. But, there “is a spirit of cooperation,” Orgel says. “It seems that everybody wants to give it a chance to work.”
A transition team, headed by Barbara Prescott, has been tasked with looking at the myriad problems the consolidation brings over the next ten months and presenting ideas. Disparities in salary is an issue, as is transportation. Orgel explained that the county has its own bus system, but the city contracts out. Pensions, too, differ. Then how will you take a system of 45,000 students and mix it with 105,000?
And these are just a few of the problems.
City schools have mandates from the federal government in connection with special needs students. The County did not have that problem. Memphis City schools have 25 charter schools, the County, one. The city still faces an $80 million shortfall that will have to be addressed. Redistricting from the last census will have an effect and board members will be up for election in August 2012.The state, as well as the School Board, will have to approve all changes.
In addition, a single superintendent must be selected. Orgel prefers homegrown talent. “We’ve had six outsiders,” Orgel says. “It’s not good business sense to get a whole new team from Miami or Minnesota or New York,” he says. Every time they have to be acclimated to our system.
Orgel doesn’t want the quality of education to get lost in the bureaucratic workings. “We want to be an outstanding school system. We need to raise the bar higher. We have wonderful people involved. We all think we can make it work.”