The Transition Team Blues

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Barbara Prescott
  • Barbara Prescott
No ropes course, no trust falls, no alcohol, and no precedents. Just 16 people in a big room sitting behind name tags trying to get to know one another a little bit and begin to get their arms around the challenge of merging the city and county schools.

The transition planning commission held its third meeting Thursday, and it was pretty much like the first day of class in college or the opening break-out session of a convention. There were some awkward pauses, but what do you expect when the topic for discussion is "your hopes and fears" for the schools merger? Members (minus five absentees, which could be a problem if it continues) soon got over it and, in voices that were often so soft they could barely be heard by one another much less the gallery, spoke up with some candor.

Katie Stanton said she already had someone tell her that all the kids in Bartlett are going to be bused to Melrose, which, of course, is not true. Joyce Avery wondered about tax increases, and members were in disagreement. David Pickler said public education is the foundation of America and the team should take a lesson from Steve Jobs and "think differently." Tommy Hart said people don't understand the difference between the transition team and the school board, but he hopes the transition team will be remembered 50 years from now for doing something good. Rickey Jeans said the system needs to keep sharp, smart kids from leaving the area. Jim Boyd said he is excited and "I don't work out of fear." Louis Padgett said the team needs to "go at each other really hard" and "take on our biases." Christine Richards said she fears that people will start leaving Shelby County in large numbers.
Barbara Prescott, the team facilitator, said she hopes every mother will feel good about where her kid goes to school.

There was a brief discussion of last week's meeting with Chattanooga and Hamilton County school merger veterans, but, as Pickler noted, that system is smaller than the current Shelby County system alone. And it is majority white.

The plain fact is that there are no comparables. The transition team is in the proverbial uncharted waters.

Jacksonville merged with Duval County in 1968. Louisville merged with Jefferson County in 2003 (going from majority white to whiter) but the school systems merged in 1975. Both were majority white. Indianapolis got consolidated by legislation in 1970 but schools remained separate. Nashville went for Metro government in 1962, schools included, but the system is half the size of Memphis and Shelby County. Atlanta and Fulton County have separate school systems. So do Birmingham and Jefferson County. Knoxville . . . get serious.

In their book "City-County Consolidation: Promises Made, Promises Kept?" Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier don't cite a single example of a majority-black city or school system consolidating with a majority-white county.

The transition team will take a look at Charlotte and Mecklenburg County next month. They merged in 1960 and became a landmark in school desegregation and busing in 1969. Today the system has 135,638 students in 178 schools and has kept 44,719 white kids in the system, along with 55,121 blacks, 21,214 Hispanics, and 6,488 Asians along with a sizable number of students listed as "other" or "mixed."

That meeting will be in mid-November, following next week's meeting when Kriner Cash is scheduled to make a presentation about school reform in Memphis City Schools.

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