Going to Extremes

Fearful and frustrated, school boards and politicians get creative.


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We will have suburban votes this summer on municipal school systems. We might have a Memphis vote this fall on a sales tax increase. And we should have a countywide debate like the one in New York City over jumbo soft drinks and obesity.

We are fed up with the intractable problems of failing schools, falling property values, and fat kids and parents, so we are going to extremes that were once considered unthinkable. "Do something!" is the new imperative, because what we've been doing isn't working.

First, the latest on the schools.

A thunderstorm Monday afternoon knocked the power out in parts of Midtown, including several buildings on Union Avenue. At the Teaching and Learning Academy on Union, the lights stayed on, but there was a power failure of a different kind.

The unified school board met to take up a single item: the contract of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash. But after going into closed session, the board promptly adjourned and rescheduled the discussion for next week, adding the contract of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken into the mix.

Aitken was there. Cash was not. He sent word, via his attorney via the MCS communications office, that he would not attend. No word on whether he will come to the festivities on June 19th.

So the unified school board met under a big-screen video display of four smiling children and a reminder that it's all about "the children." Except, for now at least, it's all about the adults, specifically Cash and Aitken and the board members, who, while still operating separately, extended the contracts in anticipation of the 2013 merger.

Chairman Billy Orgel, a newcomer to the school board, got schooled by MCS holdover Martavius Jones. Orgel, whose comment that he had just been out of the country for 12 days won him no slack, tried to use the chairman's power to force Cash's hand. There was a "heated" discussion last December. But Jones, the leading voice for charter surrender, got wind of it and won both a one-week delay and inclusion of Aitken's contract in the next meeting.

The unified board deserves some patience. Some of them are relatively new to the job and to each other. A 23-member board is also new. There is a big difference between school reform in theory and in practice. In a few weeks, the unified board will get its first look at the Transition Planning Commission's merger plan with all of its recommended contracts, cuts, and closings that will result in winners and losers. Dealing with the superintendents will be good practice.

Give the board members this: They showed up Monday for the meeting. Without their personal lawyers. Ready to work. More than some people can say.

You can see the same sense of desperation in the Memphis City Council's willingness to consider increasing the once-taboo local property tax by half a cent. Councilman Shea Flinn says it's either that or raise property taxes or cut core services.

Flinn was met with predictable objections that sales taxes unfairly impact poor people. He conceded that the tax is regressive. He should have added that so is the Tennessee Lottery. A lottery is a sucker's game, blessed by state government, and some of the biggest ticket sellers are convenience stores and gas stations in poor neighborhoods. You don't hear many objections to that.

Finally, what this town needs is more controversy. What if superfit Mayor A C Wharton followed the lead of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in the fight against fat and diabetes by proposing to ban supersized sodas and sugary drinks? Here's The New York Times on the ineffectiveness of health fairs and such noncontroversial measures:

"But if anything, this battery of efforts points to how intractable the obesity problem has become. The number of overweight and obese continues to grow faster in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city."

Health fairs and bike lanes and skate parks are preaching to the choir. As he knew he would, Bloomberg got everyone's attention. Memphis City Schools got on the right track when it hired "Cafeteria Man" Tony Geraci as health-minded director of food services. Take the bull by the horns here in one of the fattest cities in America. People will understand. Or not.

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