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Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell speaks on education, jobs

Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr. was a teacher before he became Shelby County’s director of corrections, its sheriff, and, in 2010, its mayor. Luttrell, a Republican, was a member of the Transition Planning Commission that helped merge legacy Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools into one district.

Chalkbeat Tennessee sat down with Mayor Luttrell and got his take on the new merged school district, how education ties into public health and the justice system, and on some of his hopes for the city.

On the connection between jobs and education:

Education impacts homelessness, impacts poverty, impacts health, impacts crime, impacts economic development – they’re all interrelated.

I’m a big proponent of creating jobs. Our unemployment is higher than state and national average by about a percentage point. We are making incremental progress. But what we’ve discovered is, the issue’s not so much jobs as people qualified to do the jobs. That’s where education comes in…

I visited a medical device company, and many of those jobs on the floor…just require being able to read a blueprint and do high-school level math. We’re focusing on how can we get those basic skill sets in place.

On charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District.

What I’m seeing in education gives me a great deal of hope: Charter schools, the Achievement Schools, the progress that’s being made in the school system.

…When I look at the Achievement Schools, I think, if I were a student, I want to be in one of those schools. They’re aggressive and pretty progressive. Some of them are wearing those suits and ties…Chris [Barbic, the head of the ASD] is a dynamo.

On how the merger improved Shelby County Schools, and his hopes for collaboration:

I think the reality is, we have to shake things up a little bit, we have to do something different than what’s been done. I think the merging of the school systems, which did not come about through altruistic reasons – it came about because of political plays – gave us an opportunity to reflect on where we are and to take the opportunity to improve.

There are so many things that could be done to make this whole system [the county’s schools] work better, if we do indeed make a very diverse system, or very diverse systems, unified and municipal – if we use it as an opportunity to build collaborative services.

I think there are tremendous opportunities to look for shared services.

On local control and the municipalities:

I have no problem with the concept of local control, responsibility at the local level. That’s more the trend nationally than the megasystem. I think the universe is such that you can have multiple school systems in the same county. But it can’t be racially motivated…

I’ve discussed with municipal leaders their desire to have a diverse school system. If this leads to more diversity and collaboration throughout the school system, the merger is going to work.

On big changes:

What we’re going through is a pretty radical transition. It’s not going to be seamless – there’s usually several years of transition. There’s always resistance.

Education commissioner Huffman is doing pretty innovative things, governor [Bill] Haslam is doing innovative things…I think the NAEP scores are an affirmation of changes that are taking place.

On Memphians’ generosity:

Memphians can be harder on themselves than anyone else. This is a very generous community.

For example, every year, a group invites all the homeless people in the city to go to the convention center to receive services…And sometimes we have more volunteers than we have homeless. That generosity – that gives me a great deal of hope.

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