Don't Complain. Pitch In!

There is nothing wrong with the Memphis City Schools that a committed community can't fix.

| July 05, 2007

As a commissioner, I am saddened when I hear blanket, broad, and baseless attacks from people concerning the Memphis City Schools (MCS). I was especially disappointed to read the comments of former city councilman John Vergos (Viewpoint, "Time for a School Takeover," June 21st issue), since I would expect a former public officeholder to help educate our community on the challenges public officials face when trying to run any large urban government entity.

I certainly would not expect a former officeholder to misspeak so terribly. While I dare not point out each instance, I would be remiss if I did not address some of his blunders.

First, while Mr. Vergos attempts to compare the budgets of the city and the school system, he overlooks the fact that MCS has 16,500 employees (half of whom are teachers), versus the city's 6,700. Since its work force is more than twice the size of the city's, isn't it logical that MCS would have the larger budget?

Further, Vergos opines that MCS is not fiscally responsible and attempts to illustrate as much by pointing to two projects that amounted to less than 3 percent of the budget (using his numbers). In addition to being just plain wrong (the nutritional center he mentions has only cost the district $2.8 million to date and is a revenue-generating venture), Mr. Vergos' arguments are completely illogical.

He fails to acknowledge that people are about 85 percent of the MCS budget — that's the principals, teachers, other instructional staff, and administration.

Perhaps Mr. Vergos has been out of the loop since 2003 when he was last on the City Council, but over that time MCS cut $55 million from its operating budget. Thus, we do not have much flexibility in our budget, and to suggest we would be more fiscally sound by forgoing projects that amount to less than 3 percent of the budget — including one that is actually generating revenue — is absurd.

Finally, Vergos states that while the MCS budget has consistently increased, the performance of the district has rapidly diminished. A look at the performance data of the system proves otherwise. This data is neither buried nor manufactured, as Vergos implies. Be assured, we do not have our heads in the sand. We know we still have a lot of work to do.

However, we can no longer sit quietly by while some people in this community continue to berate, degrade, and insult MCS with no real foundation or basis for their sentiments. Contrary to what Vergos says, MCS is not broken beyond repair. We have great administrators, principals, teachers, students, and parents who work hard every day to make our schools successful.

We have National Blue Ribbon schools and students who are National Merit Scholarship semifinalists; we have outnumbered all other systems in the state with the number of National Board certified teachers; we have increased the graduation rate over the last three years; and several of our schools have made vast improvements in student achievement. We have plenty to be proud of.

If people in this community would spend as much time constructively assisting us, we could do much more. Communities that have great schools do so because the entire community decided that the schools would be great. The people and businesses in the communities with successful schools believe in the system, they support the system — they don't spend all of their time with destructive comments that do more harm than good.

You would think a former elected leader of this community would be outraged that the governor would threaten to take over MCS. This would not just be an indictment of the school board, but of us as a community for allowing it to happen. If nothing else, that possibility alone should make people decide that enough is enough and that it is time for us to take 100 percent responsibility for our school system, whether one has students in the system or not.

MCS has the structure and many ways for people to get involved — through the Our Children Our Future tutoring program, through the Connect mentoring program, through Adopt-a-School partnerships, and through simply showing up at a school and letting the principal know you want to do your part. (Note: You will need a background check.) Those simple actions will make a huge difference.

In the words of Forrest Gump: "That's all I got to say about that!" Tomeka Hart, an attorney and president and CEO of the Memphis Urban League, is a member of the Memphis school board. This essay is adapted from her online response to John Vergos' Viewpoint column.

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