Worst Foot Forward

At MCS budget time, it pays to make Memphis look poor.

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Memphis is a city with no middle-class families, no economic progress, and no upward mobility. If you are non-white, you are probably poor. If you start poor, you probably stay poor. You're screwed, kids, but you'll never have to buy a school lunch.

Memphis doesn't have pockets of poverty. The whole city, except for a couple of pockets of East Memphis, is poor. That goes for Midtown, Whitehaven, Scenic Hills, Hickory Hill, and Raleigh. Shelby County, on the other hand, is not poor. That's where you should go. Memphis is not a place where you would want to live or start a career or send your children to public school.

These racist and inaccurate generalizations are not the work of some anonymous commenter on the Internet, extremist political candidate, or Forbes magazine. This is the Memphis City Schools profile on the Tennessee Report Card. Nobody poor-mouths the city of Memphis and MCS more than MCS and the Tennessee Department of Education. Misery Is Us.

Public school students are about to take "the Gateway," those make-or-break standardized tests that purport to measure their academic progress and fitness for advancement. The Memphis City Council should give its own exam to Superintendent Kriner Cash, who is asking the council to give MCS an additional $120 to $130 million or so over the next two years, plus $50 million to cover the "shortage" from last year.

All of that will likely mean a property tax increase for Memphis residents who already pay by far the highest property tax rate in Tennessee.

Memphis is already losing population and becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of Shelby County and Tennessee. A tax increase of a few hundred dollars a year isn't going to break many people, but it will send a message about how the city and the school system respond to a real budget crisis.

MCS has a billion-dollar-a-year budget. But before approving the schools budget in the coming weeks, City Council members should ask Cash some questions:

• What is the MCS enrollment, and how do you know? In public education, more students means more dollars. The Tennessee Report Card and the MCS website say it is approximately 105,000. Why, then, did the state Court of Appeals use an MCS enrollment number that was too high by 7,000 in its 2009 decision on school funding? And why did you say last week that the enrollment is 111,000 in a column you wrote for The Commercial Appeal?

• If MCS, as appears to be the case, has overstated enrollment for several years by several thousand students, why doesn't it owe the state and city a refund on the order of half a billion dollars?

• On the report card, enrollment is 104,829 in 2009 and 110,753 in 2007 and 116,528 in 2006. But there are more administrators (439 to 359), schools (199 to 194), teachers (7,259 to 6,438), and per-pupil spending ($10,394 to $9,254) now than there were three years ago. Why is that?

• The report card classifies 100,617 of the 104,829 students in MCS as "Title 1," which is federal government-speak for "high-poverty schools." Are you telling us that there is no middle class and no upward mobility in Memphis, a city that takes great pride in its entrepreneurship, flagship companies, and aspirations to become a "city of choice"?

No middle class? Members of AFSCME, the public employees union with deep Memphis roots, receive an average salary of $45,000 a year, according to union president Gerald McEntee. Many of those 7,259 MCS teachers and 6,700 city employees make more than that.

No upward mobility in a city where the mayors and most city and county division directors are black?

No way to get ahead in the home of the University of Memphis and the Superhub? FedEx doesn't hire all those college students and part-timers to screw up the package sort. They hire them because they can do a demanding job. None of them went to MCS?

• While 90 percent of the public schools in Memphis are classified as "high poverty schools," only 10 percent of the schools in Shelby County are high poverty. More than two-thirds of the students at Central and Ridgeway, both college-prep high schools in MCS, are considered "poor."

But at Germantown High School in the Shelby County system, only 25 percent are so classified. Is MCS poor-mouthing itself in order to maximize federal funding? Has a city school ever gotten off the poverty list, the way schools go on and off the "low-performing" list?

• Approximately 86 percent of MCS students are classified as "economically disadvantaged" and eligible for free and reduced price lunches. Have you ever audited this number, and how and when does MCS ask kids or their parents to document their family income?

A full-price lunch in a school cafeteria costs $2 and includes an entrée, two vegetables, bread, and a beverage. That's $10 a week, or less if you brown-bag it. If everyone is that poor, then why do you need a cell phone policy?

Imagine walking into a restaurant where the hostess greets you and says, "Hello, folks, I see you are non-white. Would you care to have a seat over here in our 'Free' section? Sit anywhere you want, but just make sure you all sit together." Would you put up with that?

• How many schools are less than two-thirds full? How many are less than half-full? Are any of them almost new?

Parents and students are mobile, and MCS has an open-enrollment policy, so some schools are winners and some are losers in the choice game.

The three biggest high schools — White Station (2,142), Whitehaven (2,124), and Cordova (2,057) each has more students than the four smallest high schools combined — Douglass (366), Westwood (500), Treadwell (498), and Oakhaven (513). What are you doing about this?

• How many students graduated from MCS high schools last year? Why isn't this number, which is the simplest indicator of student progress, readily available? Please spare us the complexities of the various ways of measuring the graduation rate and just provide the raw number of graduates for the last five years.

• MCS is scheduled to take over three-year-old Southwind High School, which is now a Shelby County school in an annexation area. Southwind is nearly all-black in a county system that is 37 percent black. Any idea what's going on here?

• How will the upcoming vote on reinventing county government affect MCS funding?

• Tennessee was one of two states to win federal "Race to the Top" funds this year. The state's share is roughly $500 million. How will the share of that coming to MCS be coordinated with the additional funding you are seeking from the City Council?

• Do you have bodyguards? If so, how many and why?

• You say you believe in openness, but your media staff requires reporters to submit Freedom of Information requests for the most basic information. And your idea of open seems to be public access cable TV, where you can talk about whatever you want for as long as you want. Why?

Asking questions about money for MCS inevitably provokes either legal challenges or passionate cries at City Hall and the school board to do right "for the sake of the children." Fair enough, but how about giving students and the rest of us a fair shake first?

Making Memphis City Schools appear bigger and poorer than it is may help the system get more local, state, and federal money, but it's killing the city and it's unfair to the students.

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