Concerns Trump Hopes at Transition Team Meeting

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Again and again Transition Planning Team chairwoman Barbara Prescott urged speakers to express their hopes for the merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems.

And again and again speakers ignored her and politely but firmly told the planning team they do not want changes in the Collierville schools and fear that the merger will harm them.

Members of the planning team went to Collierville United Methodist Church Tuesday night, where several hundred people filled the sanctuary and part of the balcony for a two-hour meeting. They came from Memphis and other parts of Shelby County as well as Collierville, but the dominant sentiment of the 41 speakers was anti-merger and pro status quo.

The listening tour is supposed to do two things: gather suggestions about hopes and concerns that are within the planning team's charge and demonstrate that the appointed group is open-minded and not imposing a preordained agenda, although the pro-merger and anti-merger views of some individual members are well known. Likewise, the names and views of some speakers are by now familiar. Self-styled Memphis government watchdog Joe Saino, merger opponent Ken Hoover, a student reading a prepared text and wearing a Stand For Children t-shirt, and a Memphis Education Association official spoke. Other speakers live in Memphis and work in Collierville or vice versa, and several of the speakers said they were teachers and/or parents of school-age children.

Speakers, most of whom gave their names but could not always be heard clearly or left before they could be interviewed, said the merger is "doomed to failure" and "we have a really wonderful thing going" and "smaller is better" and "it seems like there is more parent involvement in Shelby County schools" and "face the truth about what is wrong with all the issues facing urban school systems" and "if it's not broken don't fix it" and "if you don't have a system you can respect and get behind then you're lost" and "I'm concerned that my kids will be bussed downtown" and "my hope is that this plan does not succeed" and "there will be flight to private schools" and "Memphis proves that spending more money isn't the answer" and "we need a school system that dos not exclude prayer or God."

There were also speakers who favor the merger or at least favor giving the planning team a fair shot, but not as many as the opponents. This, of course, was no surprise. Collierville boasts some of the highest-performing public schools in the state. But county residents did not get to vote in the Memphis referendum that approved the charter surrender of Memphis City Schools. School system consolidation was considered so unpopular that the earlier dual referendum on general government consolidation made a point of excluding the school systems and still failed overwhelmingly in the county outside of Memphis.

Summarizing, Prescott said the speakers' hopes reflect the guiding principles of the transition team, including high academic standards, a world-class school system, and community schools. It was a game effort, but called to mind that high school favorite poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and the lines about "cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left of them" and "someone had blundered." On this night, the anti-merger sentiment was clear. It could surely not be called a wake-up call because it was so predictable.

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