The new board won't have its first real meeting until October 3, but the members of that board, as well as those of the equally new 21-member transitional or planning committee created by this year’s Norris-Todd bill to assist the merger, have already had a joint, get-acquainted session.
That kumbaya affair was convened on Thursday at the University of Memphis by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, one of three ex-officio members of the transitional committee. The other two are MCS Board chairman Martavius Jones and SCS Board chairman David Pickler. Since Jones and Pickler are also members of the interim school board, the actual number of the ensemble gathered Thursday night was 42 — a number suggestive of the Nashville Metro Council and a not unwieldy group, considering the circumstances.
Those circumstances include the separate-but-equal state of mind that was embodied in the very fact of the two soon-to-be consolidated entities — an urban, almost all-black school sysem and an integrated but white-dominated one representing the suburbs. To call their union a shotgun marriage requires re-casting that metaphor, inasmuch as the process began after the 2010 election when representatives of the two systems and their host populations armed themselves for a showdown. The SCS’s Pickler talked out loud of getting the new heavily Republican legislature to sanction a new special school district for the suburbs. And Jones and others on the MCS Board, feared the possible loss of tax revenue to a new county district, responded with their own doomsday scenario — a threat to surrender the city board’s charter so as to force consolidation with SCS.
So it was that the unity of the Thursday night get-together convened by Russell was somewhat deceptive. One member of the new interim board, broker Chris Caldwell, reported being hot-boxed by two of his new colleagues from SCS, David Reaves and Mike Wissman, who made the case for new breakaway districts when the time came. Indeed, Wissman had just been elected mayor of suburban Arlington, a municipality which has already engaged the consulting group Southern Education Strategies, to help it plot the course toward an independent district. Other municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett — are embarked on similar preparations. Bartlett’s mayor Keith McDonald, who was recently named to the transitional committee, has served notice he intends to lead his city into a separate school district, and he makes the case that new county districts are entitled to inherit their present school buildings and other infrastructure cost-free, on the ground that the state-mandated Average Daily Attendance formula had already distributed tax moneys for capital construction on a 3:1 ration favoring the city schools.
Thus, the prevailing apparent unity of the present may be only a veil for a coming separation which will re-establish a demographic division of Shelby Couny’s public schools — but a division which, more clearly than the prior situation, would give each of the two entities a little more of what they have historically wanted. That would be the aforesaid single-source funding for Memphis residents and autonomy (though an expensive variety) for a major portion at least of county residents.
But there are still pockets of bitterness and intransigence — notably on the County Commission among the three representatives from District Four, Shelby County’s outer suburban rim. Those three — Terry Roland, Wyatt Bunker, and Chris Thomas — have from the beginning of the merger process fought a running guerilla war against the proponents and prospects of consolidation, declining to countenance it in any form.
All the while declaiming their abhorrence of consolidation, the three District Four resisters boycotted or, without apology, tried to subvert the merger process at every turn — refusing to participate in the first round of Commission interviews of prospective interim school board candidates and taking part in the latter stages only to try to insert opponents of merger onto the board. At best, they succeeded only incrementally, subjecting outspokenly pro-merger candidates to hectoring interrogations and, whenever such an applicant was demonstrated to have children in private schools, charges of hypocrisy.
In the end, in what had to be a mortifying outcome for Kyle and his supporters, the senator was edged out on a 7-6 vote of the commission — party-line except for a crossover vote from African American freshman Democrat Justin Ford, who was impressed by the credentials of Kyle’s opponent, a young and evidently sincere black businessman named Kevin Woods, whose political affiliation happened to be Republican.
So the two basic bodies that will guide Memphis and Shelby County schools (or such vestiges of the latter whose municipalities are willing) into educational union are now up and soon to be running — both destined to go out of commission on September 1, 2013, the date set for completed merger by U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays, who had earned universal plaudits for his skill in dealing with assorted litigations from the contending groups. Overcoming some resistance from representatives of state government, Mays had also presided over the development of as Memorandum of Understanding beween the parties, one fruit of which was their agreement to include all members of the current MCS and SCS boards on the interim all-county board.
As for the 21-member transitional or planning commission, whose highly education-oriented membership was appointed by the two current school boards and County Mayor Luttrell, with single-member add-ins from Governor Haslam, Senate Speaker Ramsey, and House Speaker Harwell, it, too will dissolve on September 1, 2013. Its functions meanwhile are purely advisory, as the interim school board will be calling the shots on the way to merger.
Again, the situation of this highly ad hoc merger of previously polarized entities in Shelby County has few historical precedents. One possible guiding example, however, might be that of the federal union itself, created in 1789 from competing entities with disparate priorities. That one has endured despite awesome threats to its unity. The new Shelby County Schools system should be so lucky.
A somewhat different version of this article appeared in the current issue of the Tennessee Journal.