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No More Proscrastination

It's time for real action on the Memphis/Shelby County schools merger.

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Across the page from this editorial in the hard copy and via this link online is this week's Viewpoint, written by Mike Ritz, chairman of the Shelby County Commission and an activist sort who is clearly not content to preside over meetings or to be a neutral arbiter over disagreements.

Even before his ascension to the chairmanship, Ritz was anything but bashful in advancing his several agendas — most of which had to do with issues of fiscal solvency, a fact which made him a typical Republican of a certain sort and, more often than not, cast him as a member of a voting minority (not infrequently, in fact, as a minority of one).

For the last two years, however, the current chairman has been out of kilter with the other five GOP members of the commission on what is arguably the most significant issue confronted by the county's legislative body, and certainly the most divisive and volatile one. This is the matter of city/county school merger, in which Ritz, not only a Republican but a resident of Germantown, has consistently advocated and orchestrated a coalition of eight members (the other seven are Democrats and urban dwellers) behind the goal of a unified public-school system.

Whatever his motives, they cannot be attributed to regional or political parochialism. It would appear that they might indeed owe something to the aforesaid idea of fiscal solvency and to a belief in unity for its own sake. Ritz was pursuing a route to single-source funding of the county's schools long before the merger issue came up via the December 2010 decision by a majority of the Memphis City Schools board to surrender the MCS charter, thereby forcing a merger with Shelby County Schools.

To be candid, it is possible that the commission chairman's insistence on keeping school merger on track may be driven somewhat by the fact that the commission is fiscally, politically, and to some limited degree legally the de facto wielder of power in such a process. Indeed, much of what Ritz has put on his plate, on school issues or whatever, has served to remind observers that state law puts county government at the top of the political pyramid.

In any case, the argument that Ritz puts forward in this week's Viewpoint is a challenge to the bona fides of the provisional school board, which all too often does indeed, as he suggests, seem to be pulling against its ostensible goal of forming a workable and unified educational system. It is worth pointing out that Ritz is not alone in posing such a challenge. We see a counterpart in presiding federal judge Hardy Mays' recent actions, including his move toward appointing a special master to oversee unity and his no-nonsense declaration to all parties that, like it or not, a unified system will come into being for the 2013-14 school year.

In the course of time — and that could be as short as a single year — constructive alternatives could emerge to what the Shelby County suburbs' legislative champion, state senator Mark Norris, derisively calls "mere merger," maybe along lines of autonomy already suggested by the Transition Planning Commission.

But it's surely time for an end to the delaying game, as Ritz suggests and Mays demands.

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