Right now, school consolidation -- the subject of a controversial state bill which is floundering, or about to -- is an idea without a constituency, and that's a recipe for irrelevance. The only person who might be able to change things is Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.
If there is a case to be made, Herenton, the former city schools superintendent, and his friend Johnnie B. Watson, the current superintendent, are the people to make it. They need to explain three things: what the cost savings would be from city-county school consolidation, where those savings would come from, and how classroom instruction would be affected.
Herenton needs to say more than what he has said -- that, without consolidation, school costs are going to bankrupt this city and its school system. Where is there duplication in the city and county systems? How many administrative positions could be cut, and at what savings? How would the two school boards be merged? Would the 45,000-student county system become an adjunct to the 116,000-student city system? That seems to be one of the fears of the county administration and school board, who maintain -- not unreasonably -- that any aggregate containing 20 percent of the student population of Tennessee might become an entity too unwieldy to manage.
It's understandable that Herenton may not want to come out with a detailed plan for consolidation. He has done so before, only to find himself leading a charge without any troops behind him. The problem back in the mid-1990s, when Herenton was focusing on governmental, not school, consolidation, was that black politicians in the city feared loss of their power, while white suburbanites dreaded the thought of being involved with what they imagined as crime-ridden, defective inner-city schools.
Back then, Herenton attempted to defuse the consolidation issue by separating the schools from it, constructing his consolidation pitch around the maintenance of independence for both the city and the county school systems. Now he's coming at the issue from the other end, professing a desire to consolidate the schools first and the rest of the two separate governments later.
To be sure, he has cut the base of resistance in half, but as was made obvious from the intensity of county school board members' reaction, the suburbanites who doubted consolidation almost a decade ago when its chief specter was concealed are bound to be more adamant than ever now that the disguise is off.
Herenton, now in his third and presumably final term as mayor, is at an optimum time politically to make a new bid for consolidation. Considering how easily he won the most recent mayor's race against several opponents (including one from the rival Ford political clan), the mayor might be inspired by the apparent determination of George W. Bush to push an agenda that his hairbreadth victory hardly gave the new president a mandate for.
If Herenton can pull off consolidation, or any important component of it, during his third term, that fact could become even more of a legacy than his being the city's first African-American mayor.
Incontestably, the consolidation issue is Herenton's baby.