Is a Merger Worth It?

Early voting is off to a slow start, as Memphians ponder schools.

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The slogans and yard signs have come out, now that early voting has started on the schools referendum: "If You Don't Know Vote No" and "VoteForUnity."

Never sell "don't know" short. Last week, the Memphis mayor's office came out with budget deficit projections ranging from $70 million to $125 million and layoff projections ranging from 350 to 2,100. Even those in the know don't know. And the schools mess will wind up in court, which will lead some people to "don't bother."

The pro-merger side has to choose between the symbolic feel-good message — unity — or the financial message — lower taxes — which is not at all certain.

Slogans aside, another way to look at the schools referendum is to ask this question: Is it worth it?

To answer that, we need to look at what can and can't be changed by surrendering the MCS charter and merging the city and county school systems. And then we need to ask if the things that can be changed are more likely to happen with or without a merger.

Here's what I think can be changed:

The discussion: There was as much or more publicity and probably a much bigger voter turnout for the 1991 mayoral election (won by Willie Herenton), but it was racially polarized. This is all about mixed alliances and younger players. Jack Sammons, a former city councilman and a lifelong Memphian, told me he's never heard so many people talking seriously about schools.

The tax imbalance between Memphis and the suburbs: Sooner or later, Memphis will go bankrupt if a shrinking tax base has to support more services and residents can opt to live in a neighboring suburb, where the taxes are 20 to 40 percent less. As FedEx founder Fred Smith said during the government consolidation debate, "In a market-based economy, not to grow means that your standard of living is going to decline. It's just that simple."

School district boundary lines and attendance zones: This is the point of the "firm boundaries" part of the proposed Shelby County special school district. Homebuyers, real estate agents, builders, and developers want to know which city and school district they're going to be in five years from now. Thirteen schools with more than 12,000 students are currently operated by Shelby County schools but located in the Memphis annexation area. School board membership and the size of the board can be increased and the district lines can be redrawn.

Superintendents can be replaced, just like coaches: Buyouts come with the territory. If you are a Kriner Cash fan, vote "no" on school consolidation. Otherwise, he's out of here within a year or so.

School system openness and accountability: Everything starts with honest numbers. Attendance, enrollment, and graduation rate numbers can be audited. Taxpayers should not have to pay for phantoms.

The uncertainty about what Memphians want: This is a city-only referendum. The result will tell us something.

This is what I think can't be changed:

School choice: The choices are broader than city or county schools. There are private schools and Mississippi schools minutes away. MCS has an open enrollment policy and several new charter schools. The strongest force in the universe is a parent determined to get their kid into a good school. Boundaries are nothing.

Resegregation: There are not enough white kids in the combined city and county system — about 32,000 out of 150,000 — to have racially balanced public schools. Racially unbalanced schools are a fact of life here. With a merger, we might have unity in the sense of one public system instead of two but probably not for long, if municipalities set up their own systems.

In-fighting on the school board: A bigger board would have fresh faces, but democracy guarantees diversity and disagreement. A merger of two public schools is not like a corporate merger. There are no lines of authority, no CEO, no hand-picked board. And nobody with a mandate to close schools and cut jobs.

The suburban dominance of the state legislature: They have the numbers.

The achievement gap between the very best schools and the worst schools: College-prep public high schools like White Station, Houston, Collierville, and Central have a magnet effect. It is not realistic to expect disadvantaged city schools that take all comers to compete with them.

As of Tuesday, only 3,619 people had voted in early voting. There is one question on the ballot. This is Memphis undiluted. The outcome will influence what suburban residents and the courts do.

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