Consolidation of OHA & EDS: Spring of 1987

In Jackson, sometimes a lunch at The Old Country Store is all that’s needed to settle differences and strike a deal. Sometimes, though, it takes a lot more to bring two groups to decide on a common goal. For the consolidation of Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School, it took weeks of confidential talks, long nights of deal-making, and when everyone thought the idea had come to a divisive impasse – it was a lunch at The Old Country Store that settled a final roadblock in the creation of University School of Jackson.

The final decision in March of 1987 for Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School to consolidate their talents and assets into one leading independent scholastic institution did not come overnight. Many attempts had been suggested by families and discussed in board meetings, but had ultimately failed. Two separate institutions had grown independent of each other for 17 years, and each had achieved a level of comfortable success. Many ideals of the two schools were similar – both were founded on Judeo-Christian values, whose main objective was the betterment of their children through strong academic programs. Academically, the schools were competitive up to the ninth grade – where EDS’s academic program graduated its students to other high school programs in the area – many to Old Hickory Academy. However, each time leaders from either school brought up the subject of merger, it swiftly had been met by concerned parents who rejected the idea outright.

Seniors from the Class of 1989 relax after a day of classes.

In early March of 1987, Frank Bloom approached an EDS parent, Robert Alderson, during a basketball game between the two schools. Bloom, new to Jackson, had been hired as the president of Union Planters Bank and had just enrolled his two children at Old Hickory. Bloom could be objective and was not biased by history, politics, or underlying rivalry of either school as he clearly saw the logic in consolidating the two institutions. Alderson, an EDS board member, agreed with Bloom that night that while the schools appeared to be rivals, the two actually had very similar missions in education.

Bloom saw two independent schools competing for the same student body. Each school sought the same academic, fine arts, and athletic standards found at peer institutions in the Southeast. Bloom felt that through consolidation, OHA and EDS could achieve their goals together and provide the best possible education in the area.

On March 16, 1987, a small group met at Union Planters Bank to entertain the idea of consolidation. The group was led by Tom Reed, EDS Board Chairman, and Hunter Welles, OHA Board Chairman. The men, who lived across the street from one another, saw many benefits and challenges about merging. Each school’s decision to keep the effort private allowed the group to fully examine how and why such a consolidation could be beneficial for both schools. Each Board Chairman formed an independent task force to fully investigate the benefits and possible drawbacks of consolidation.

On March 22, both task forces decided to move ahead and attempt to negotiate the consolidation. Timing happened to be on the side of each school as well. EDS had recently finished construction on an $800,000 building for a high school while OHA was in negotiations to build an $800,000 structure to house an expanded lower school program. Rivalry between the two schools had mellowed over the years. Student crossover from EDS’s lower school program to OHA’s high school helped ease tension between the two schools. However, some people from both schools remained adamantly opposed to the idea of consolidation.

A signboard outside the OHA campus announces the school's decision for consolidation. The picture appeared in "The Jackson Sun" on March 29, 1987.

Chairmen of the boards, Reed and Welles, met with Alderson, Carl Kirkland, and Jerry Kizer of EDS and John McCutchen, Bill Ennis, and Gordon Sipes of OHA. Meetings between the two groups were held in private. Each task force knew that undue pressure would be forced upon their boards if the discussions were made public before solutions to the various problems were agreed upon.

Reed’s wife, for instance, was a member of the media, and Reed did not want to jeopardize her position. The night the final decision was made to go public with the idea of the consolidation, Reed had to tell his wife on her birthday, “I can’t take you to dinner tonight, and I can’t tell you why.” Everyone honored the idea that secrecy was the best approach. Midnight meetings became commonplace in the days leading up to consolidation. Leaders involved used all spare moments they had to clarify the remaining details of the deal.

One hurdle was not in ideology or opinion, but rather in the way each school was able to make decisions. OHA’s board was empowered to make major decisions for the school. The EDS board, however, had limitations with the responsibility to poll families on major decisions, such as a vast restructuring of the school. Each school’s leadership set out to address any and every problem and other possible “sticking points” before the task forces approached their respective boards.

The task forces addressed important issues, such as the new identity of the consolidated school. While these leaders did not come up with specific answers, they did agree on key aspects. Neither OHA’s nor EDS’s mascot, colors, and name would be used for the consolidated school. Neither school’s leadership would maintain complete control of the new school. Each school had to ultimately relinquish its established identity in order to gain a mutual trust. With most every possible problem answered, one loomed heavily over the task forces. Who would be the new headmaster?

Every major obstacle had been met with reason and compromise from the collective task force. Each side had made concessions. EDS leadership agreed that the chairman of the first board of trustees would come from OHA. OHA leadership agreed that it was in the best interest of the new school to change its identity, even though OHA’s established high school had more than 700 graduates. However, when it came to the issue of who the new headmaster would be, neither side would back away from its own current leader. The discussions had reached a stalemate.

Each school had a trusted headmaster of its own. Joe Thornton lead EDS, and Kim Barton headed OHA. When neither side could come to an agreement, Alderson stepped in and asked Thornton to consider having lunch with Barton. The two headmasters met for lunch on March 25 at The Old Country Store. Over chili and onions, Thornton and Barton reached their own solution.

Joe Thornton

Thornton approached Reed and expressed that he had decided to step aside and assist Barton. However, Barton agreed that he would only remain headmaster for a maximum of two years. These selfless acts built a level of trust on which each school could agree and assured that the consolidated school would come into its own with fresh leadership. The period of two years would allow the new school board to look beyond a “them” and “us” mentality.

With this final obstacle agreed upon, the joint task force concluded that all major issues had been hammered out.

Kim Barton

Later that night, on March 25, 1987, both task forces approached their boards with the same message: EDS had just built a structure and OHA was about to commit large sums of money towards a new building of its own that would only make one another’s resources redundant. Both schools were seeking the same type of students. And while two good schools currently existed, with consolidation, there could be one great school. The meetings of both the OHA and EDS boards finished late that night with resounding success as each agreed to proceed with the merger and inform the parents, faculty, and staff of each school. A press release was written overnight and on March 26, 1987, the plan for merger was announced publicly.

Faculty and staff from each school were called to separate mandatory 7 a.m. meetings on March 26. “We told them everything we knew,” explains Reed. “We understood that this would come as a surprise to most people, so we wanted to be as up front with the situation as possible.”

The Episcopal Day School board educated its parents on the points of the merger and on April 10 achieved a 93 percent consensus among its families to approve the merger officially. With the OHA board’s overwhelming support, the two schools were committed to the consolidation.

EDS brought its solid, revolutionary lower school academic program to OHA’s academically strong high school. Three hundred forty three EDS students joined OHA’s 560. In a matter of a few weeks of negotiations, each school was able to realize its five- to ten-year long-term goals in the seconds it took to sign the final papers for the schools’ consolidation.

The community met the decision with surprise as many never thought two independent schools, considered friendly cross-town rivals, could ever reach consensus on a merger. The wisdom behind the deal was quickly grasped. EDS and OHA had managed to consolidate a few years ahead of the Jackson City and Madison County school systems.

Parents from both EDS and OHA met the news with surprise. Many families were unsure of the idea. Many others resented the idea of combining the schools, eliminating 17 years of history from each. Old Hickory graduates no longer had a true alma mater to call their own. Today, University School of Jackson continues to struggle to relate to the first graduates of Old Hickory Academy. However, by the time the announcement was made, the decision was final, and as everyone knew them, Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School would no longer exist when school reopened after the summer break in August of 1987.

Carolyn Epps, one concerned EDS parent, met the decision with complete shock. Her reaction wasn’t uncommon. Why hadn’t she been asked? Many families had no idea that the schools had been discussing a possible merger. “That group had to be so sure,” Epps recollects. “They had to completely separate themselves from the issues and not look to make people happy. They had a long-range plan and vision and knew what was best for both schools.” With the momentum of the board’s approval and answers to any possible sticking points, the EDS board was able to successfully convince parents of the idea. At the time, it may have been difficult for many families from each school to understand the decision. However, a new school was forming, and this was the time to define new traditions. Families from both schools had a unique opportunity to create a new joint image of quality education to the West Tennessee community.

Episcopal Day School Board of Trustees Closing Remarks

Tonight we have taken a step – a big step towards reaching our goal of academic excellence for all of our children. Through your vote, we have reached 5 and 10-year goals tonight.

You have voted your approval of a plan that we hope will lead to one of the finest educational institutions in this region, and perhaps the country. You have seized upon the potential that there is in this community to pool our resources in a common cause and to put aside a destructive rivalry that has no purpose or place in the educational environment. You are to be commended for the courage to reach for something better at a time when we are satisfied with the present. Growth, change, and accomplishment require that courage. You have answered the call.

I would like to thank our board members for their time and wisdom. They have fulfilled their responsibilities by taking a long-term view on behalf of all of us. Tonight we have endorsed their vision with 73 percent of our contracts voting and 93 percent, or 323 for, and 17 opposed.

Robert Alderson, Carl Kirkland, our Executive Committee, Joe Thornton, thank you.

I know each of you made personal and business sacrifices to work on our behalf. During this time, I was able to see the best of what each of you has to offer come forward. We have new opportunities because of your combined talents.

The EDS Board celebrates its final meeting together before consolidation with OHA.

It is time to take more steps toward our goal of academic excellence. Much work needs to be done. The challenge of consolidating the two schools is great. Like in all endeavors, there will be a multitude of opinions as to what should be done.

Channel that productive energy through the many committees and task forces that the new school will have. The new board will need your help and support.

We have the opportunity to create. That doesn't happen very often. Tonight we have that moment in time when our combined talents can create a community model for education.

On behalf of the board of trustees, we thank you for your vote and for your support. Let's continue this journey together for the benefit of our children.

-Tom Reed
EDS Board Chairman