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How We Got Here

On some myths and ironies that underlie the current school controversy.

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Although it may seem as though the current school crisis has been going on forever, it has really only been with us since shortly after Election Day, last November 2nd. That's a matter of only about four months — a snap of a finger in historical time.

The matter arose when it did for several reasons, one of them being that governmental consolidation between the city of Memphis and Shelby County had been a hot-button issue on the November election ballot, and the general question of merger no doubt lingered in people's minds.

At that point, however, school consolidation itself had largely figured in conversation as something that was off the table — omitted from the ballot proposal for reasons both technical and practical. From the latter point of view, the proponents of general consolidation regarded its absence with relief, thinking that leaving the schools out of the November referendum — one which required separate approval by voters inside and outside the Memphis city limits — had removed the elephant from the room.

That the painstakingly cautious and conditional consolidation proposal of November went down to defeat — by the resounding ratio of 85 percent to 15 percent in the outer county and by a two-to-one ratio overall — while the excluded school-consolidation issue came right back in through the front door with better-than-even chances of permanent residency is a big-time irony.

But it wasn't just the lingering aura of a consolidation question that put the schools issue front and center. Two key figures in the current controversy were reading another set of election results. Both Martavius Jones, a key member of the Memphis City Schools board and its immediate past chairman, and David Pickler, the perennial chairman of the Shelby County Schools board, looked at the outcome of legislative races, which saw Republicans winning almost everywhere in Tennessee, acquiring a 20-13 edge in the state Senate and an unheard-of 64-34 majority in the state House.

And both concluded the same thing: That legislation to enable a special school district for the Shelby County system, annually submitted by legislators from suburban Shelby County and annually rejected, though by increasingly narrow margins, could almost certainly pass muster with the newly constituted General Assembly — overwhelmingly Republican in complexion and presumably sympathetic to the GOP legislative contingent from Shelby County's suburbs.

Popular legend has it that Pickler was the prime mover in the suddenly mushrooming controversy, and he was, in the sense that when interviewed by a reporter in the wake of the election, he allowed as how the time was undoubtedly propitious for special-school-district legislation. The fact is, however, that Jones had already decided that the time was also ripe for the MCS board to consider surrendering its charter, an act which would automatically cause the merger of the two systems under state law.

In that sense, Pickler's public statement was only the trigger for subsequent developments, not their direct, solitary cause. In the public narrative, however, the SCS board chairman's responsibility is writ large and will doubtless remain so, to the point that wags in the pro-merger movement jest that the administration building of whatever consolidated school system might ultimately come to pass should bear his name.

In appearances before various forums, Pickler has also rescued from the dustbin of local collective memory the fact that in 1990, the MCS board seriously considered a charter surrender, prompting the governments of the county's outlying municipalities to consider seceding to form a new county, to be called Neshoba County. As a result of the "Toy Towns" controversy of 1997, galvanized by stealth legislation — later declared unconstitutional — that would have ringed Memphis with a score or more of modestly sized new municipalities, state law was changed to preclude secession of that sort. In the short term, the board failed by a single vote in 1990 to approve charter surrender, and the crisis was defused.

But Pickler maintains that the continuing threat of such action is what has prompted the persistent efforts by the suburbs to get special-school-district legislation passed. The threat as seen by the MCS board majority this year was different — that a new special school district in the suburbs might ultimately acquire its own taxing authority, closing an already struggling city school system off from the property tax revenues generated by choice suburban property.

The fact is, the current controversy over the twin issues of a suburban special school district and merger of the city and county school systems is but another chapter in a nervous, decades-long standoff between Memphis and its suburbs. That Pickler or any other single individual is the cause of it is pure myth.

Another myth is that by seeking to restructure public-school education in Shelby County, the Memphis City Schools board is pursuing some radical innovation. The simple fact is that unification of the county's two functioning school systems would merely put Shelby County in conformity with basic state law. It would restore a situation that is the norm in the great majority of Tennessee's 95 counties.

Under Tennessee law, it is county government which is charged with funding and administering the public schools, and, indeed, it is county government — in the person of the Shelby County Commission — that continues to fund both the Shelby County Schools system and that of Memphis City Schools. MCS is, ironically enough under current circumstances, a special school district itself, created around 1869, though it has never sought nor enjoyed taxing authority of its own.

What MCS has enjoyed, for the past several decades, is a source of additional funding from Memphis city government, voluntarily proffered in its beginnings. It was the fact of its being considered discretionary (rising to a height of nearly $200 million annually at one point in the administration of Mayor Willie Herenton, or so the ex-mayor recalls) that prompted the City Council in the cash-strapped year of 2008 to consider quitting it altogether, leaving it to county government to pick up the whole burden.

In the end, the council paid MCS a portion of the $78 million that was expected but withheld some $57 million of it, a sum which the courts have subsequently ordered city government to restore, under the "maintenance-of-effort" provisions of state law.

Opponents of a city and county school merger charge outright that getting out from under the financial obligation of funding the city schools was a primary motive for the council's recent vote, and it may indeed be one of the factors.

An increasingly significant factor, though, is reaction on the council — and within the city at large, for that matter — to the exclusion of Mayor A C Wharton and other Memphis city officials from the right to make appointments to the 21-member "planning commission" that, under the terms of the hastily enacted Norris-Todd bill, would oversee the terms of a school-system merger if one is enabled in the court-ordered citywide referendum scheduled for March 8th. A yes vote would confer formal approval on the transfer of authority for Memphis city schools to Shelby County schools.

Even before the passage of Norris-Todd, increasing numbers of Memphians were rankled by earlier efforts on the part of SCS and state senator Mark Norris to prevent the referendum from taking place at all or to expand the electorate for such a referendum to include all of Shelby County. And the inclusion in Norris-Todd of a final provision that would enable, post-merger, the creation of new special school districts and/or municipal school districts in suburban Shelby County was another red flag.

Polls suggest that the referendum will succeed, helped along by a consensus concerning the city's right to self-determination and by a growing belief in the efficacy of unitary public education. But support of Memphians for school-system merger is far from universal. Some of the most pointed criticism of the merger has come from the Memphis Education Association, which has focused on the uncertainties that might confront MCS employees.

That opposition, however, could rapidly be neutralized by new legislation under consideration by the same legislature which just approved Norris-Todd. A committee of the state Senate last week jump-started a bill that would severely limit the collective-bargaining rights of teachers' organizations like MEA. Reaction to similar legislation in Wisconsin has called out large crowds in protest, and, though no one quite foresees that happening in Tennessee, at the very least it could transform the way in which MEA and its cadres view the issues that confront them.

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