Hostile Surrender

Memhpis inches closer to a referendum on schools merger.

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What the city-county schools story needs is a new metaphor to replace the apt but overused "shotgun wedding" and "nuclear showdown."

To have a shotgun wedding you need an angry father holding a shotgun on one or both parties. Short of a judge stepping into this drama, I don't see anyone playing that role yet. As for the nuclear option, Memphis will always be Memphis, and in the eyes of some, we got nuked a long time ago.

As an alternative, I propose "hostile surrender," a twist on a familiar phrase from the world of big business. In a hostile takeover, a big company takes over a smaller company against its will, either buying it outright or buying controlling shares of its publicly traded stock. Sometimes the attempt is thwarted by a "poison pill" provision that makes the targeted company unattractive or unaffordable.

In a hostile surrender, Memphis City Schools could give up its charter and be forcibly merged with Shelby County Schools, which would rather be left alone. Memphians get to vote on it. Shelby County residents outside of Memphis don't, unless a judge says otherwise. "Hostile" fairly describes the attitude toward Memphis of those county residents who voted four-to-one against consolidation last year.

As for the poison pill, in this case it's Shelby County Schools threatening to swallow one via legislation in Nashville to make itself immune to a merger. But it might not work, and SCS leaders know it. They showed some fear, and they spread some fear at their press conference on Monday.

First they appealed to the Memphis school board to reconsider its 5-4 decision, which is not likely to happen. Then they appealed to Memphis voters to oppose a merger by playing on their fears of losing jobs, public funding, grants, optional schools, charter schools, transportation, 7:20 a.m. start times, labor agreements, even food service. With a hostile surrender, SCS board president David Pickler said, the explosive issue of closing at least six and possibly as many as 20 low-enrollment city schools would be in the hands of the current county school board, which would stay in place until three of the seven members' terms expire August 31, 2012.

"This is not an issue about race," said Pickler, standing shoulder to shoulder with five other white males.

In a way he is right. SCS has approximately 20,000 minority students in its 47,000-student population. In the eyes of the federal courts and the NAACP, it is certifiably desegregated.

And in a way he is wrong. The county school board is all-white, and a few county schools slated to become city schools by annexation are nearly all-black. Voting majorities, self-segregation, and school boundaries are responsible.

Race is even more of an issue in Memphis. The school system is 90 percent black, and the number of white students, clustered in a half-dozen or so schools, goes down steadily. Shelby County didn't invent secession. Memphians have been fleeing city schools for county and private and parochial schools for 50 years. As the school system goes, so goes the city and its tax base.

So be it, say some MCS board members and churchmen opposed to charter surrender. Their duty, they believe, is to the 100,000 students who come, not the ones who left.

"You elected me to serve the children, not surrender them," said board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. to cheers at his swearing-in ceremony on Monday.

On the other side are board members Martavius Jones, Tomeka Hart, Patrice Robinson, and Stephanie Gatewood, along with state representative G.A. Hardaway and Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism.

Hardaway says the pro-surrender campaign will have to keep it simple: one tax for schools, lower taxes for Memphians, control of our own destiny. The mayors, he believes, should stay above the fray and concentrate on a conditional transition plan.

He thinks the referendum is a go, despite "delaying tactics" by the Shelby County Election Commission. If there is a legal challenge to the Memphis-only referendum, he said he will go to court and argue that Memphis residents don't get to vote for Shelby County school board members.

"I'm loving the fact that we've got some serious conversation going from top to bottom," he said. "We've always had it at the top, but I am hearing from folks in barber shops and restaurants and gyms. Everyone is finally engaged in trying to figure things out. No matter what happens in the vote, that is positive."

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