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The Loneliest Number?

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Rounding out his annual New Year's Eve prayer breakfast last weekend, Memphis city councilman Myron Lowery made a point of endorsing the consolidation of Shelby County's two separate school systems, saying, in effect,there's nothing wrong with coming together and being one.

It was a simple, yet powerful, way to state an issue that continues to vex people on either side of the usual dividing lines — those of race, class, and jurisdiction. In the last few weeks, and especially since the Memphis school board's vote just before Christmas in favor of a referendum to surrender the charter of Memphis City Schools, news reports on the matter have focused on the details and complications that lie ahead — up to and including the differing bell times historically practiced by city and county schools. (No, we're not making that up. The bell-times conundrum was one of the obstacles featured at Monday's press conference called by county school officials to reflect their anxiety over the looming referendum.)

The issue, as Lowery saw it, was simpler than that: Can we focus our energies for a change not on our differences but on the various promises and prospects and procedures that we might hold in common — and, by doing so, find the pathway to making common progress?

It's a good question and one that applies to any number of venues besides the classroom. Another case in point was the recent proposal by Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell to consolidate the various separate IT units of county government into a single cohesive program. It was a long-considered and well-researched concept that various consultants, public and private, had long since signed off on. The idea was to increase efficiency, meanwhile saving the taxpayers as much as $5 million annually.

Luttrell must have expected little in the way of sales resistance, given the fact that the Shelby County Commission had been freshly filled, as of the 2010 county election, with new members committed by their campaign rhetoric to pursuing economies in government. And there was the further fact that many of these new members had been Republicans on the GOP county ticket, whose unexpected success in the voting owed much to the strength of Luttrell's coattails.

Yet most of these members yielded to the blandishments of party colleagues who headed separate units of county government and were in no mood to surrender control of so significant a portion of their turf. By a narrow vote, the commission approved a resolution allowing the separate agencies to opt out of or opt into the new unified operation, and to do so as often as it pleased them. All this in the name of "accountability"? And they were able to muster one more vote to override the mayor's veto of that resolution.

There are arguments to be made for diversified management, in relation both to schools and to Internet technology. But in an age of budget strain and diminishing financial resources, more powerful arguments can be made for simplified focus and for unity of purpose, wherever and however those ends can be achieved.

Somehow we don't think we're alone in believing so.

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