News » News Feature

One Is the Loneliest Number

Mayor Herenton is "crying in the wilderness" on consolidation.

by

comment

Another summit meeting called. Another summit meeting postponed. That's the story of consolidation, and after 20 collective years as mayor and city schools superintendent, Willie Herenton is pretty tired of it.

Herenton was supposed to meet Monday with suburban mayors in Shelby County mayor Jim Rout's office, but some of the mayors couldn't make it and the meeting was put off indefinitely. Herenton, meanwhile, continues to press the issue in speeches and interviews and criticize what he sees as a lack of leadership and serious commitment from county leaders.

"They're very entrenched in their opposition to consolidation, but I firmly believe a consolidated form of government in the long run is going to be the most efficient and effective form of government," he said in an interview with the Flyer. "But it's like crying in the wilderness alone."

Herenton seemed weary of the decades-long debate which flared up again in February when a bill was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly that would limit all counties to a single, unified school system. The bill appears to be going nowhere, but it has reopened the debate.

"The issue has been dormant for a while, but it hasn't been dormant with me," he said.

He laughed and admitted his suggestion in a television interview last week that school funding could "bankrupt" local government was "pretty strong." But he predicted financing two governments and two school systems will be the hammer that will eventually force political and business leaders to push for consolidation.

On that point, at least, Rout seems to agree. The funding formula for city and county schools is based on average daily attendance (ADA) and currently gives about 70 cents of each tax dollar to city schools. Rout said Monday that without a change in the ADA it could go to 90 cents if Memphis annexes areas in its reserve area.

The costs of consolidation are not clear yet to Herenton, but he is confident that there would be long-term savings in school construction costs, pensions, debt service, and especially personnel, which he said accounts for 70 percent of government budgets.

"So what if you initially have a gap you have to make up?" he said. "It's just like a business plan. Some businesses don't make money in their first few years, then they turn around and make money."

He scoffed at fears that county students would be bused to inner-city schools and insisted school assignments would not change.

"The thing that really bothers me is the perception that kids in Germantown and Collierville are going to be bused into the inner city," Herenton said. "Students' current assignments will be their future assignments. But they want to create mass hysteria among suburban residents."

While a revival of busing is highly unlikely under any circumstances, it is impossible to rule it out or to speak with certainty about future school assignments. If there were consolidation, the city and county school boards would give way to a new, elected county-wide board and a new superintendent.

"None of what I'm talking about is easy," Herenton admitted.

On Monday Herenton met with U.S. secretary of education Rod Paige, who was visiting Memphis. Paige was formerly superintendent of schools in Houston, Texas. Herenton said he asked Paige if a system with 160,000 students was unmanageable.

"He said," Herenton recounted, "'That is absurd.' And I said, 'Mr. Secretary, you have just made my day.'"

He brushed off critics who say he's injected race and class into the issue.

"I haven't played the race card," he said. "Researchers and psychologists all use terms like class and ethnicity in describing conditions. Maybe it's part of my education background, but in Memphis if you start talking from an academic perspective and mention race and class people go crazy. Well, race is a factor, and class is a factor. And nobody wants to admit that. It's not just true of white suburbanites, it's true of black suburbanites. The white and black middle-class typically have the same views about people who are poor."

Herenton said he had high hopes last year for a school funding plan put forward by business leaders and the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, but he blamed the suburban mayors for scuttling it "at the eleventh hour." He went out of his way to praise Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford, businessman Russell Gwatney, and the chamber even though Wellford admits the effort went nowhere.

"We got stymied because the majority of commissioners and Mayor Rout were not ready to get out in front of a sales tax referendum, and the suburban mayors were very resistant to both single-source funding and a building authority," said Wellford.

Rout said the chamber proposal and options other than changing the funding formula will be considered when the meeting with the suburban mayors is rescheduled.

Asked about a timetable for consolidation, Herenton said he expects it to happen "well within this decade." He does not have to run for re-election until 2003. He wouldn't say what his own political plans are, but his patience on the consolidation issue he has plugged for two decades now suggests he is in it for the long haul.

The political picture could become clearer in a few months. The county mayoral race is in 2002. The city mayor's race is in 2003. Rout in all probability will run again for re-election as county mayor. Assuming he runs and is re-elected, he could be in a better position to support consolidation than he is now.

The last time consolidation got as far as the referendum stage in Memphis and Shelby County was 1972, when it was defeated. Last year voters in Louisville voted to consolidate city and county government, but the school systems were already unified.

You can e-mail John Branston at branston@memphismagazine.com.

Add a comment