A Public Mess

| July 28, 2011
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- Justin Fox Burks

As more than a few Memphians have noticed, there are uncanny resemblances between the game of brinkmanship being practiced in the current confrontation between Memphis City Schools and the city of Memphis and the one going on in Washington between the White House and congressional Republicans concerning raising the nation's debt limit.

The deadline for the latter is August 2nd — coincidentally the same date that the council may have the opportunity to finish off the tense process of negotiation with MCS by formally approving the school system's operating budget for 2011-12.

Maybe it's the case with other countries — including the nine or 10 or so whose standard of living has grown to exceed that of the United States in the last decade — that they have their own foibles and when they see ours on such embarrassing public display they hazard a smile, not of sardonic amusement but of sympathetic fellow feeling. We'd like to think that's the case, but we doubt it — especially in the case of the rating agencies that, even when operating on our own shore, take a distinctly unsentimental attitude toward default on public debts.

We know it's not the case with how Memphis is coming off to observers in other cities, whose points of view are reflected in their news coverage. (Yes, Virginia, the Memphis school board's threat to suspend classes for an entire year unless they got a $55 million pay-out got a lot of press last week, ranging from neutral at best to ... Well, here's an example from CBS.com: The headline on that network's online report on the MCS-city council showdown read, "Memphis schools shuttered in funding spat." That was followed by a lead which began, "The board is upset over a sum of $151 million that it claims the city has failed to pay the school system over four fiscal years."

Really? "Spat." "The board is upset ..." Children! And what kind of deadbeats must be governing (all together now, remember the infamous Time description of 1968?), this "decaying river town"?

There was more in that vein. The MSNBC anchor who interviewed council chairman Myron Lowery about the spat could barely control her condescension.

We've got to do better than that. Frankly, it was shameful for the city school board, with whose recent problems we have been sympathetic, to have put the matter forward in such a confrontational and embarrassing way. And if the city administration had indeed stiffed MCS to the tune of $13 million during the last two years, when we (and to hear them tell it, council members) knew nothing about that, shame on the mayor and his folks. And shame, for that matter, on the council for setting this whole mortifying matter in motion with its silly gamble in 2008 that it didn't have to pay MCS its annual allotted "maintenance-of-effort" sum. (The courts later instructed the council in the error of its ways.)

There's enough shame regarding this matter to stick to all of us, in fact. We'd prefer to be boosters in this space, to point with pride rather than view with alarm. Please, everybody: Repair this mess and give us a reason to do so.

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