December 2010 Archives

Path clearing for de facto schools consolidation

 
After listening to the arguments made Monday about the possibility Memphis City Schools board members voting to allow Memphis taxpayers to choose whether to consolidate with the county by surrendering the charter, I've got questions.

The biggest questions of course involves funding. Are MCS board members correct that city taxes would skyrocket if the the county is allowed to permanently freeze district boundaries with special school district status? If that's true, why would city voters NOT want the opportunity to vote on a strategy -- charter surrender -- that would pre-empt and possibly nullify the Shelby County Schools board's desire to become an SSD? If MCS's charter is surrendered, would city taxpayers still be liable for the $57 million or so per year courts have ruled is now obligatory for children attending MCS schools?

I have questions for those who declare that For Sale signs would sprout in those bucolic and prized suburban neighborhoods if the city surrenders the charter. Really? Say you live in a big house a great east Germantown neighborhood, and your child walks or rides the bus to Dogwood Elementary. Say you love the school, teachers, etc. Are you really going to uproot, sell your house at perhaps a loss of tens of thousands of dollars and move .... where? Fayette County? Tipton? Shelby County schools are empirically, according to the data, far superior to those systems, and finding mature, established suburban neighborhoods in those counties is much more difficult. As for DeSoto County, again, the data shows Shelby County Schools are much stronger and need we remind you there is something called an income tax in Mississippi?

Furthermore, it is no longer 1973 and nobody seriously believes that forced busing could return -- the courts are much more conservative now and even the least-radical student-transfer plans are no longer approved (see Louisville and Seattle) much less mandated. And a serious problem in 1973 and even in the 80s was, to be brutal about it, racism. Many, many white parents (and many more white grandparents) just were not comfortable with sending their white children to schools that included any significant presence of black children. Right or wrong, good or bad, that was just the reality here. Having grown up in Frayser at a private Baptist school, I know that as well as anyone. In 2011, there are many more white parents who embrace the idea of diversity for their children than those frightened by it. It is also no longer 1973 or 1983 from this standpoint -- the price for long commutes is going up and up and there aren't many more places for middle-class residents to "flee" toward.

Certainly, it is true there is fear and very legitimate concern from the suburbs. As MCS superintendent Kriner Cash told me last week, "I appreciate what they feel. They feel they have a good school system and want to keep it that way. They fear the perception. But nothing is ever really as bad as it seems and nothing is ever really as good as it seems."

Another point raised that doesn't add up to me is the one from Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. that if you you don't trust David Pickler and SCS enough to negotiate with them, why would you then trust "them" with "our" children. My question: If consolidation is forced by MCS charter surrender, would there not be a new county school board? Would not for city residents the "them" Shelby County Schools board eventually become become "us," meaning a Shelby County Schools board with majority representation from city residents? And would David Pickler not be in serious trouble if new elections are held? He barely defeated a political novice this summer (despite a huge money advantage) and if he's seen as the "father" of consolidation because of overreach on special school district, Pickler may become unelectable.

One MCS board member I've talked to is making the point that ultimately this question is so significant that Memphis voters ought to at least be given the opportunity to have the final sayso. Whether that board member would campaign for or against consolidation-via-charter-surrender is another question. The board member just believes it's absolutely the kind of issue that deserves a referendum. At some point, the city and its taxpayers chose to break off from the rest of the county and the board member believes the city voters should be given the choice of reunification. Now, whether the Shelby County Schools could prevent it through some state legislation is a whole other matter.

Finally, the point is also made that Memphis voters barely voted for consolidation of governments on Nov. 2 so maybe voting for consolidation of the schools isn't such a no-brainer. My question: Weren't many of those inside the city who were the most opposed to the Metro Charter irked because it did NOT include consolidation of the schools? Many people said flat-out they were voting against the Metro Charter on Nov. 2 precisely because it left out school consolidation. If those folks join with Memphians who voted for government consolidation, it's easy to see a path toward consolidation via charter surrender winning decisively if the election is held in March.

We may or may not find out. The MCS Board will likely vote Monday on whether to allow voters to ratify school consolidation via charter surrender. It takes five votes. Tomeka Hart, Martavius Jones and Sharon Webb want to give the voters a say. One other board member I've talked to indicates support. Can they find one more vote? If so, the election would likely be held in March.
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at www.MemphisNewsBlog.com, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at zmcmillin@commercialappeal.com or 529-2564.

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