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In Memphis, two competing school districts came together to learn how to play nice. It didn’t work.

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson have led their districts through a maze of school choice issues in Memphis.
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson have led their districts through a maze of school choice issues in Memphis.

In Memphis, it’s no secret that the city’s two school districts don’t always get along. Just last week, the traditional district, Shelby County Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District, launched in 2012 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, were fighting over rights to students’ contact information.

What’s less well known is an attempt at detente by a kind of intergovernmental marriage counselor — a private consultant brought in behind the scenes to create a better working relationship between the two districts.

The effort, brought to light in emails obtained by Chalkbeat, halted in May when the two sides weren’t able to agree to terms.

The emails paint a picture of conversations with representatives of both districts following more than a year of talks moderated by Phil Vaccaro, a managing director of Parthenon-EY, a Boston-based consulting group. Vaccaro and Parthenon-EY had worked with Shelby County Schools in the past, and his work moderating the discussions was paid for by philanthropists, not taxpayer dollars, according to two sources who declined to be named, citing the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

“We have been spending a lot of time behind the scenes trying to have a better relationship and clear the air with a lot of issues,” SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said of the meetings.

The heart of the work was a seven-page accord outlining shared “rules of engagement” as well as recommendations for how to move forward — a document that ultimately was not adopted.

The “rules of engagement” touched on a laundry list of contentious issues between Shelby County and the ASD, from the student contact information challenge to abetting accusations of “misinformation” about school performance.

The document also offers suggestions for improving relations going forward. One proposal outlines rules for how and when each side should communicate with each other — often in writing. Another part details an intricate set of agreements, new policies, and shared “toolkits” aimed at smoothing over another communications minefield: the tricky matter of how each district talks to families that they are trying to recruit to attend their schools.

The sides even attempted to work together on the previously contentious process of how the ASD decides which Shelby County schools should be converted to state-run charter schools. In the past, local leaders have protested these decisions, urging parents to choose SCS-run schools instead of ASD-run charter schools. The new “rules of engagement” would have had them talk together about which schools the ASD would take over before the decision was made.

Hopson and ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson confirmed the meetings took place. Both downplayed the collapse of the talks, saying they learned from the process and are moving forward with some points, even though they didn’t commit to the full “rules of engagement” document.

Hopson said he stepped back from the conversations following the state’s decision this summer to overhaul and downsize the ASD’s staff to curb costs. “I think that, given some of the changes and turmoil that the ASD has been going through, we kind of wanted to stand back and see what would happen with the ASD,” he said.

“We’ll certainly be open to collaboration and discussion [in the future],” he added.

Anderson said the process was helpful, especially in establishing lines of communication between the two districts about decisions that affect each other. “We reached agreement on several key issues that were already implementing together, which I think is good,” she said .

Hopson said the two parties had unofficially moved forward with guidelines about recruiting students. He did not elaborate on what exactly they’d agreed to, but the document outlines ways for the two sides to coordinate their communications with parents in order to avoid what it calls “misinformation.” In a city with too many schools and too few students, recruiting practices have caused squabbles in the past.

“The recruiting guidelines were reasonable,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “We could just do them rather than just have a big commercial about it.”

Hopson and Anderson also both pointed to another reason they had no need for a formal memorandum of understanding: Their disagreements over sharing student information, they said, were now a moot point because a new state law, passed this spring, requires local districts to hand over student data to approved charters.

But it’s that very law that has the state and the Memphis school district back in the boxing ring. Charter operators and state officials say the contact information is guaranteed to them by the state law. Shelby County board members insist that handing it over would violate federal student privacy laws.

Vaccaro declined to comment on his work in Memphis.

Chalkbeat could not confirm which philanthropists supported Vaccaro’s work. One email obtained by Chalkbeat said that one meeting between SCS and ASD officials was held at the office of the Hyde Family Foundations. A Hyde official declined to elaborate. (The Hyde foundation is one of Chalkbeat’s funders. You can see the full list of our supporters here.)

You can review the full memo and proposed “rules of engagement” below.

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