Over the past 40 years, the Memphis and Shelby County community has been in an almost constant state of conflict — by race, by gender, by religious affiliation, and, most intriguing of all, by the accelerating divide between urban and suburban interests.
- David Pickler
It could be argued that despite 40 years of court-ordered actions to eliminate the vestiges of segregation, Memphis and Shelby County are more segregated today than at any time in history. While the prior focus of desegregation efforts focused on issues of race, today's segregated Shelby seems to be principally a function of socioeconomic status.
The past few decades have witnessed an unprecedented level of population mobility, with large segments of the community choosing to vote with their feet. A significant result of this mobility has been the growth and development of Shelby's six suburban communities. This outward expansion from the core city of Memphis has created substantial animosity from urban leaders, whether in municipal government or in education leadership.
It could be argued that a driving motivation behind the surrender of the charter of Memphis City Schools was an effort of urban Memphis leaders to effect a hostile takeover of the suburban school system. It is certainly unquestioned that the school merger issue was merely the latest chapter in a saga that has also included libraries, ambulances, police, and utility services.
As an aggressive and passionate advocate for Shelby County Schools, I was absolutely opposed to the ill-conceived Memphis City Schools charter surrender, and my public advocacy as a suburban leader made me a fairly easy target during the many months of urban-suburban battles at the ballot box and in the legislature. I was very proud to fight for the rights of suburban residents to the same educational autonomy that had been enjoyed by Memphis residents for many decades.
Upon the decision by federal Judge Hardy Mays that the merger would become the new reality, my fellow Shelby County Schools board members and I chose to fully engage in the work of the Transition Planning Commission and Transition School Board to attempt to navigate the uncharted waters of consolidation. We also watched with significant interest the diligent and passionate efforts of each of our six suburban communities to pursue their own educational independence.
As the merger reached completion, the most significant issue remaining to be resolved was the decision about school buildings located within their municipal boundaries yet still owned by Shelby County Schools.
Despite much concern that the acrimony of the merger and creation of the new municipal districts would derail any meaningful attempts to negotiate a fair agreement for transfer of the buildings, an amazing degree of cooperation and compromise has emerged.
Agreements have been reached with five of the six municipal districts that would end the litigation battle between the Memphis City Council, Shelby County Commission, and suburban municipalities. These agreements provide a nominal series of payments to partially offset the remaining post-employment liabilities still retained by Shelby County Schools. The buildings would transfer without cost to the suburban taxpayers.
Still left to be resolved are negotiations with Germantown. These discussions have been tainted by unfortunate rhetoric on social media sites and in public emails and speeches. The recommendation by the superintendent and staff to retain three landmark Germantown schools has ignited a powder keg within the municipality.
Emotions have flared on both sides, as suburban advocates claim that Germantown is bearing the brunt of urban angst and anger in dismantling the newly merged district. A factor hindering Germantown's position is a lack of consistency among city leaders and newly elected Germantown school board members as to their desired results.
Additionally, there is a significant lack of trust in Germantown's long-term commitment to educating all the children currently being served in Germantown schools.
The public-education families living in Germantown should not be deprived of the same right to neighborhood schools that is being offered to every other family in all of Shelby County. I would hope that the spirit of cooperation evidenced in the negotiations with the five agreements already consummated would favor openness resulting in an appropriate agreement with Germantown. The time has come to heal and to focus on providing world-class educational opportunities to all children, urban or suburban. They are our future.
David Pickler is proprietor of Pickler Wealth Advisors and a member of the Shelby County Schools board.