World-Class Crack-Up

Voters don’t buy the rhetoric of creating a new school system.

Posted by John Branston on Tue, Nov 13, 2012 at 5:35 PM

So much for the world-class unified school system.

By a 69-31 margin, voters put the final nail in that DOA concept last week, defeating a referendum that would have increased the sales tax to provide more money for schools.

Just over 250,000 votes were cast on the referendum, and Memphis was disproportionately represented, because suburban municipalities that approved a sales tax increase in November were excluded. The margin was all the more telling when you consider that Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett passed their tax bump in August by margins of at least 75-25.

Another half-penny on the sales tax, by itself, won't pay for new suburban systems or universal pre-kindergarten. But those things won't happen without additional revenue. The suburbs acknowledged that, and the majority of Memphis voters did not. In a sales campaign, backers of the countywide increase, including Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the NAACP (but not Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell), pitched half of it as a way to fund pre-K programs. Without breaking down the math, this was, in other words, spun as a vote for more funding for public schools. Voters did not say "no." They said "hell no."

One of the backers, city councilman Shea Flinn, said he would not rule out pushing for a Memphis-only referendum in 2013. Better focus, better sales pitch, bigger alliance, yadda yadda. More to the point, special elections get a tiny turnout compared to a presidential election, so, in effect, another referendum would be gaming the system.

Instead, backers of the failed referendum, myself included, have to acknowledge the obvious. A broad sampling of Memphians, in addition to that huge majority of suburbanites, don't buy the notion of a world-class Memphis public school system, much less a unified Memphis and Shelby County school system. A world-class crack-up is more like it. Consider what has happened in the last year or two.

The suburbs want separate school systems and school boards, if not in 2013 then in 2014. Most of the suburban members of the joint city and county school board have no intention of remaining in a unified system.

The Memphis members of the unified school board and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association (MEA) want all the autonomy, perks, power, and jobs they had before the 2011 merger, plus universal pre-K. At the last school board meeting, MEA passed out an 11-page, point-by-point critique of the TPC recommendations. The groups are miles apart.

Among other things, the union says "MCS has a school closing policy that has worked effectively," and it opposes displacing current teachers with newcomers, giving principals the power to fire tenured teachers, and basing teacher pay on merit instead of academic degrees and experience.

The Transition Planning Commission recommended that a superintendent for the future unified system be hired this fall. The school board cannot even agree on where or how to search for one.

The Tennessee Department of Education and Commissioner Kevin Huffman want to expand charter schools and the Alternative School District, which operate apart from the current Memphis system and unified school board. The vast majority of the young college graduates who came to Memphis with Teach For America as change agents and stayed in public education in Memphis after their two-year commitment are working in charter schools or the Achievement School District.

Parents of students in Memphis optional schools and the CLUE program have made it clear at school board meetings that they will only stay in the system if those programs are preserved.

Depending on how the federal court decides the constitutional questions about municipal school systems, by the start of the 2013 or 2014 school year this is what we are looking at: a unified system with fewer than 100,000 students; an expanding state-run Achievement School District with its own superintendent and 15 or more schools; an expanding charter school network with 30 or more schools; and five or six suburban systems with their own school boards and superintendents and 20,000 or more students in all.

There may be some world-class schools in that mix, but to call it a world-class system is delusional. My guess is that if a referendum were held to undo the 2011 MCS charter surrender and put the toothpaste back in the tube, it would pass in both the county and the city, by a margin of about 69-31.

Comments (81)

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To be honest, the process of surrendering the school charter was comical. The entire process was hijacked by those whose quest for metro consolidation is fanatical.

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Posted by tomguleff on 11/15/2012 at 9:11 AM

Kudos to the people of Memphis for not falling for the lie.

The CC8 and company would've been better off telling the truth, letting the constituents know that they wanted the money partially to fund schools, but they couldn't guarantee that it would create new programs, only help assist the district in not coming up short.

Instead, they lied and tried to say the referendum was a vote for UNIVERSAL pre-K, something that isn't even a TPC recommendation and something that they didn't have the authority to promise. It was dishonest.

I'm sure part of the reason the referendum failed is because it was a Presidential election cycle, and most people automatically vote NO to tax increases, but regardless, the CC8 and company didn't deserve a YES vote for the way they handled the process. Lying to your constituents to try to get them to vote to give you more money is an awful move.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 11/15/2012 at 9:15 AM


I voted no on the referendum, but, not for the reasons that you say. I voted no because the Memphis dominated BOE is not addressing the issues that are most important to me.

The BOE is not fighting for the rights of students in Memphis. We don't need new programs until we straighten out the mess with the existing programs that we have.

I and many more parents are upset over this charter and ASD thing. We don't understand why the BOE would stand down and let the ASD take over our schools. Better said, we are concerned that the takeover of the school, they can have the schools, but not the children that are meeting standards within the so-called failed schools. We wanted the ASD to cull the so-called failing children out of those schools and leave the ones that are meeting standards and making adequate progress to remain.

To lump children that are doing okay into a system that was specifically designed to bring failing students up to par is not fair to the children. You have to teach backward to get failing students up to par. While you are doing that, what happens to the students in good standing? Why should those children have the stigma of being in an ASD school, designed primarily for failing stundent? Do you get my point?

Whether msds are allowed in the suburban munis is one thing, but, the kids that are meeting standards should be allowed to transfer out of ASD Schools, well, they should not have been placed there in the first place. I have discussed this with the BOE and they say they don't have space to accept those students. I suggested that if the munis get msds, then those students in good standing could and should be put into the school building that are SCS and, of course let the msds build their own schools.

I was told, under the cover, that if msds are allowed, that is exactly the plan. Utilize those suburban schools to shift students that are being assigned to ASD Schools that do not belong there. It was always my assumption that the state can take over a school, but, it can't take over the students. If a student is in a failing school they should be allowed to transfer to a school that is meeting standards, providing that space is available.

It is obvious that the state has thought of this also. That is why they are trying a work-around by education vouchers. The only problem with that is the children are guaranteed a good quality basic education for free. So, if a parent has to supplement the difference between the education voucher and the private schools tuition, it flunks the free education clause in the state constitution.

The other proble is that the state progress measurements are on ever shifting ground. Children go to school daily, make fair to good grades, as reflected on their report cards. The next thing you know, the state is telling that same child's parent that the child is not meeting standards. What's up with that? It is very confusing. It is not that the parents don't care, but, how are they to know which is authenic. Standarized tests? That is piss poor. I would be willing to bet that if you give a standarized test to a group of students, regardless of race, the ones that pass with flying colore, if tested 3 months dow the line with a surpris test, the same test they passed before, a very lage number of those same kids would fare worse or fail.

In the end, we need to straighten out this current mess before we talk about taxes to add new programs.

Grove, this is not about race, but about accountability.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/15/2012 at 9:59 AM

In all honesty you could put a tenth of a cent tax increase for every $100 spent on the ballot that would guarantee world peace forever and it would be voted down. Most people just see the wording 'tax increase' and the issue is decided at that point. You're giving our huddled masses way too much credit if you think there is actual analytical decision making going on in tax increase voter referendums.

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Posted by Midtown Mark on 11/15/2012 at 10:30 AM

The last standardized test my 3rd-grader took gave an almost opposite picture of his strengths and weaknesses. It said he scored in the top percentile for pattern recognition and that is one of his weakest areas. The whole thing was a joke.

Which pretty much affirms my own experience. When I was in high school and took the ACT, I guessed on almost every chemistry question, yet somehow managed to score a 36 on the science section of the test. It must have been a miracle!!!

Posted by Jeff on 11/15/2012 at 10:42 AM


Collierville, Bartlett, Millington, Lakeland, Arlington, and Germantown all recently voted for .5 cent sales tax increases.

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Posted by GWCarver on 11/15/2012 at 10:58 AM

Don't disagree with you OTP. The school board has a lot of issues to work out, like outlining a detailed budget, before you can start agreeing to give them more funds.

The reason we passed the taxes in the suburbs is because it's a state requirement to show that minimum $0.15 property tax equivalent of support to start a district. If it wasn't a requirement, we probably would've waited until after the boards were formed, with a formal budget showing a need for more money before we passed a tax increase.

I'm going to avoid the building argument, because it's never going to come to that.

That said, I find it hard to believe that the BOE is being honest if they're telling you there is no room for the successful students from ASD schools in other city schools. After all, isn't this the same BOE that's in the process of evaluating a need to close existing school buildings? If your goal is to simply offer non-ASD options for those students, it's hard to argue that you don't have room for them while you're in the process of closing schools.

If that's the stance the city is going to take, they're eventually going to be laughed out of a courtroom.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 11/15/2012 at 11:01 AM


I know the feeling. Hell, my son, an IB honor student does math good, takes AP Human Geography in the 9th grade and is doing good. He is well mannered and presents no discipline problem at all. He is a teacher's dream. He made a high B in Geometry.

The problem is, I know my child. He will pass the test, make good on his report cards, etc., but, in reality, he couldn't figure out how to get out of an open ended paper sack. He is doing and memoriing what he has to, for as long as he needs to, just to make the grade. Why he is doing all of this stuff, in relation to everyday life, now and in the future, he doesn't have a clue.

I would rather he made a C and retained what he knew rather than have a sham grade of A or B.

All of these standarized tests is nothing but a way to justify these entities to keep getting the money. The children, actually learning and retaining what they have learned, is of no consequence to these people at all.

There has got to be a better way!

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/15/2012 at 11:11 AM


Btw, I prefer the military way. Teach the basics, the whys and ifs and then dril, baby, drill.

In the military, before you can actually do the job, you must pass a realistic proficiency test. If you are a heavy machine gunner, you have to physically show that you can set up a 50 cal machine gun in the time allowed, hit the target, be able to break it back down, change positions, clean and maintain the weapon. Same thing for medics, engineers, air traffic controllers, supply and logistics, etc. Rather than just depend on standarized test, one must, in all branches of the military, be able to physically perform their tasks.

What do you think?

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/15/2012 at 11:17 AM

OTP, I don't know that there's much practical knowledge a school can teach. IMO, their main purpose is to teach kids how to learn, and they don't do that because they spend all their time teaching kids how to pass tests. Learning is a wonder and a joy and in school, any school, whether it's the public school my kids attended or the private school I attended, school is nothing but drudgery and toil - because they aren't learning. And when they get home, they have more of it in the form of homework.

Personally, I would love for them to be able to apply what they are learning in everyday life. IN the current Flyer, they ask ten Memphis movers how they would change the city. If I had a genie in a bottle, I'd scrap the entire way school is organized and create a system that does just that, but it's never going to happen in our lifetimes. All we can do is teach our kids how to play the game. IMO, your son is doing just that and sounds like he's got it together pretty good. Maybe he can't remember who was the 22nd president or what the communtative property of addition means, but he sounds like he knows how to play the game and get ahead. You've got to survive before you can thrive.

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Posted by Jeff on 11/15/2012 at 12:09 PM


The schools that Memphis wants to close are old, outdated, need serious repair. It is not just that they are under utilized, they are dinosaurs that have outlived their purpose unless you are willing to spend a ton of money to bring them up to speed.

Jeff, I like that, you have got to survive before you can thrive. But, you know, its been a long time ago, but, while stationed in Germany, kids were being taught more practical applications of what they learned. I guess it is still that way. That is why those children, whether going to college or into a vocation, they have a broad based understanding of how what they learned in school is applied.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/15/2012 at 12:26 PM

OTP, the TPC recommended closing I believe 21 schools because of underutilization. The school board is saying it's going to be more along the lines of maybe 7 schools. That means there will be at least 14 more underutilized buildings, not to count the at least 14 (likely closer to 30) other schools out there that would have to have space for there to be enough room to absorb the students from those schools the TPC recommended for closure.

In other words, there are classrooms that have space in the city of Memphis right now, and there will still be classrooms with room in the city of Memphis after the school closures, in buildings that are likely a closer drive from the ASD schools. Either your BOE friends are lying to you, or they are simply trying to make some sort of political play to attempt to gain leverage over suburban buildings.

I assume the latter, which will be a tough play to make considering that the suburban buildings won't be sitting empty in 2013. Either the MSDs will be up and running, which would mean the building issue was settled with the suburbs paying whatever cost necessary (if any) for those buildings, or the MSDs will still be in litigation or some interim stage of the formation process, in which case SCS will be responsible for educating those children, which will mean the suburban/unincorporated children will be in those buildings as SCS students for 2013. There isn't a scenerio where those buildings will be sitting empty.

It'll be tough to transfer students to classrooms that aren't empty.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 11/15/2012 at 1:21 PM

Closing 7 schools by next year will be a difficult feat when you have to meet all the requirements of the law including notification to parents, redistricting - supposedly on hold, and then disposition of the building. Parent backlash will be fun, especially if you are making them transfer to a school with lower student achievement. It takes between 12 to 18 months to close a school. And there are schools that are closed that have not been dispositioned. The TCP calculated that 1/3 of the schools in MCS are underutilized. Even if they close all 21 schools they still are not even near capacity. They cannot move students east because those schools are already over crowded. Every single person on the BOE knows that there is no use for muni schools.

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Posted by homersimpson on 11/15/2012 at 5:24 PM

According to the TDOE website, it costs Memphis City Schools $11, 250 per student to operate; of that, 39% Local, 40.2% State, and 20.9% Federal.

Can anyone tell me how much the average tuition is for a private school in the Shelby-metro area?

Oh yeah, Shelby County spends $9,318 per student, and the state average is $9,123.

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Posted by still living in Berclair on 11/15/2012 at 6:49 PM

And here goes OTP on one torrential tirade now that Judge Mays kicked the silly CC8 request for CA poster names to the curb. That was a resounding no.

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Posted by homersimpson on 11/15/2012 at 8:32 PM

Yep, the CC8 struck out on that one. Thanks to the CA for standing up for us, and thanks to The Flyer for publicly stating it would do the same if the need arose.

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Posted by GWCarver on 11/15/2012 at 9:15 PM


I could give less than a damn about the CA and the request for information.!

Just rule on the case, already!

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Posted by Oldtimeplayer on 11/15/2012 at 11:37 PM

Appears Mays is going to try to push mediation before a ruling.

Will it work? Probably not, but kudos to Mays for trying and we can always hope that the sides are able to find some middle ground. It appears from this and his prior rulings on the school issue that Mays understands the potential damage that this issue could and is creating between the city and its suburbs.

It's best for the city and county in the long run if that city/suburb relationship can be repaired or at least maintained in some amicable fashion going forward. We don't have to always work together, but we definitely don't need to get to a point where we're working against each other constantly.

Back on the funding issue, I still have to shake my head about the fact that the city was able to use "economies of scale" to sell consolidation to so many of its constituents.

Ultimately, we all know that the school issue was and is just a pawn being played by those in Memphis that are hell-bent on city/county government consolidation for whatever reason.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 11/16/2012 at 8:53 AM

OTP - just curious. What exactly is AP Human Geography? Is that learning how to find your ass with both hands? ;-)

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Posted by staythirstymyfriends on 11/16/2012 at 9:11 AM

Nashoba County!!!

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Posted by Jeff on 11/16/2012 at 9:11 AM

Yes, Reb, "economies of scale" translated into the transition plan equals "the merger increased the FY2014 deficit by $71 million." What a big load of crapola this whole thing is. Martavius Jones deserves whatever comes his way; unfortunately for anyone with half a wit, it will be getting elected mayor of Memphis in 3 years. Then the citizens will get exactly what they deserve. Good luck with that.

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Posted by staythirstymyfriends on 11/16/2012 at 9:18 AM


Maybe it is, hell, I don't know. I know it is a college course and the kids that take it and pass will recieve college credits.

As far the snide remark of yours, it is not funny, it justs makes you look the fool that your post suggest.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/16/2012 at 9:18 AM


Why mediation? This issue is balck or white, there is no shades of gray, middle ground. The argument is either the msd laws are unconstitutional or only have local effect or not. If local effect is the ruling, then the CC will have to vote for msds or a referndum will have to be called and pass by the voters of all of Shelby County, including Memphis.

Usually in a lawsuit, when mediation is ordered, the questions are, how much do you want and to the other, how much can you pay.

Mays already has his ruling ready. My personal thoughts is that he will give something to both sides. It seems that is the way he rules. I think he will rule that the msd law is constitutional, but only with a local effect. This would mean the vote of the CC or a county-wide referendum. If he does that, it will be hard for either side to appeal. The ruling of local effect only will have been given to him in respose to the certified question to the state supreme court, making it impossible to appeal any further because the State Supreme Court will have already spoken. There could be no appeal to the federal courts, because the state constitutionality of the msds are a state issue only. That would also make the second part of the lawsuit, which is a federal issue, moot. Case closed, no appeal, Mays come out looking like a rose.

If that is his ruling, back to the General Assembly for them to craft a general, clear, state law instituting msds, statewide. If the General Assembly does that, all hell breaks loose. Every hamlet and muni in Tennessee would put in for msds. If the state passes the bill anyway, look for Memphis to file an official complaint with the Office of Civil Rights to deny federal funding to the Shelby County MSD's for being in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965.

This is just my personal thoughts and are not based on any facts or evidence at hand. We shall see. Like I have always said, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/16/2012 at 9:33 AM

It's not all black and white.

There are potentially shades of gray depending on what each side truly wants. If the city side wants money or financial security and the suburban side just wants control, there is a possible middle ground to be reached by giving both sides what they need most.

Point being, I think Mays knows this case is doing no good for the long term viability of the city or county, so he can convince the sides to sit down and discuss what their true concerns are.

It may be impossible to find a middle ground, and if that's the case, then city/suburban relations will take a severe hit for the long haul as we continue to go through this process no matter who wins or loses. I know, for you, there is no compromise unless suburban residents are punished or forced to take a loss on their property to leave, but I have hopes that there are reasonable minds on the city side that aren't so emotionally attached to the issue.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 11/16/2012 at 9:46 AM

Is the new county B of E a party to this lawsuit? If not then they may not be bound by any concessions made by the CC8 in mediation. If that is the situation then the municipalities would be foolish to agree to anything short of having their own districts.

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Posted by Drift Boat on 11/16/2012 at 10:03 AM
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