The Art of Neutrality

On the schools story, it's not easy to not take a position.

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Mayor A C Wharton wants to be an honest broker. Memphis City Schools board member Jeff Warren wants compromise, not chaos. Former Memphis City Schools superintendent Johnnie B. Watson is glad he's president of LeMoyne-Owen and not superintendent. He's staying out of it, for now. Stand For Children, a group of more than 400 Memphis education advocates, has tried to remain officially neutral until this week, when its position will officially change.

These are just some of the key people and groups wrestling with the complicated issue of surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter and forcing a merger with Shelby County Schools.

Rarely has it been so hard to stay out of a fight. There could be a referendum as early as March, with early voting in February. The stakes are huge. The outcome will impact taxes, schools, and neighborhoods for years. The rules change with the headlines from day to day.

Rarely has there been so little information about exactly what that impact will be. Some of the consequences are unknowable. Would a referendum pass? If it did, would residents of Memphis and Shelby County stay put or move? Would the current superintendents of the two school systems stay on the job? What about the Shelby County school board, which would call the shots about a decision not of its making?

And rarely have so few had such influence over so many. On December 20th, the MCS board voted five to four to surrender the charter and transfer administration to Shelby County, pending a referendum of Memphis voters.

A mandate it was not. Not one member was elected because of their views on charter surrender.

Of the five members who voted "aye," Stephanie Gatewood, Tomeka Hart, and Patrice Robinson were elected without opposition in 2008. Martavius Jones was elected without opposition in 2010, and Sharon Webb was defeated in 2010 and got only 17 percent of the vote.

Of the four members who voted "nay," Warren was elected without opposition in 2008, Betty Mallott was elected without opposition in 2010, Freda Williams was elected in 2008 with 44 percent of the vote, and Kenneth Whalum was elected in 2010 with 68 percent of the vote. The newest member, Sara Lewis, was elected in 2010 with just 900 votes in a runoff to replace Webb.

In an earlier column, I wrote that Stand For Children is pro-surrender. I was politely informed that this was not exactly correct. Stand For Children is a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit with a chapter in Memphis that organized last year. Its mission is "to teach everyday people how to join together in an effective grassroots voice in order to win concrete, long-lasting improvements for children at both state and local levels."

Several members spoke at the December 20th meeting. Wearing identical T-shirts, they gave every appearance of speaking with one voice. In fact, however, they agreed only on opposing special-school-district status for Shelby County. On the issue of charter surrender, speakers were carefully chosen to represent both views, by agreement of the organization's board and leadership.

Executive director Kenya Bradshaw said members voted in early December to oppose special-school-district status as "financially irresponsible." But a membership vote on charter surrender is open until Wednesday evening and will be announced by Friday.

"We are in favor of people getting more information from both sides and making an informed decision," Bradshaw said.

A classic straddle, you might say, but who can blame them?

The flaw in this reasoning, I suggest, is that getting more information about some consequences is not possible and an informed decision could lead different people to different conclusions. It's not that people like A C Wharton, Jeff Warren, and Johnnie Watson are not informed. The issue is whether to keep talking for a year or so or vote in a month or so.

We're on a fast track. Neutrality won't be an option much longer.

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