The Schools Showdown



Memphis City Schools Board President Freda Williams doesn't support a resolution to surrender the school system's charter and merge it with Shelby County schools.

Such a resolution was offered and seconded Monday night at the regular MCS board meeting, but it won't come up until December. Given Williams' opposition, it isn't clear that the resolution would pass, and if it did pass there would have to be a voter referendum in 2011.

Williams made her comments Tuesday morning during a news conference with MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash. The board meeting ended after the late television news Monday night, so this was sort of a catch-up session. Earlier Monday, Williams and Cash met with their counterparts in the Shelby County system, David Pickler and John Aitken. Williams said they signed a "pact" but it is not binding, whatever that means.

"My position is I want to do what's best for the students of Memphis City Schools," said Williams. "I don't see the facts that support surrendering the charter."

Next year looks like the most critical year for public schools in Memphis and Shelby County since 1974, when court-ordered busing for desegregation caused 28,500 white students to bail out of the city school system.

Aitken, Pickler, and some influential Republican state legislators want to make Shelby County Schools a special school district. The goal is to insure its independence from Memphis once and for all and leave Memphis City Schools to its own merry devices.

The Memphis City Schools leadership is divided. Williams and Cash want to “work together” with Pickler and his friends. MCS, remember, gets more than $1 billion a year in total funding and employs 7,700 teachers and administrators. Other MCS board members, including Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, are willing to let MCS give up its charter and become part of a giant county system.

In essence, what we have here is a little nuclear showdown. If Shelby County Schools fires the special-district nuke, then MCS will fire the surrender-the-charter nuke.

Can they both do it? Who has the votes? Will they? Who’s bluffing? We shall see. The stakes have not been this high since 1974.

We are at a tipping point, or we have reached the "tilt factor" to quote the pinball analogy used by Desegregation Plan Z author O. Z. Stephens in 1973. For city schools, the tilt factor for black-white enrollment used to be pegged at 70-30 when there was still a significant white population. White enrollment in Memphis City Schools fell below 10 percent years ago and is nearing 5 percent. The issue now is the Memphis tax base that supports schools and services over an area of 300-plus square miles.

Thanks to the consolidation debate, the critical condition of the patient — Memphis — is no longer in question. Memphis is losing population, losing college graduates, and is not competitive businesswise. Its property tax rate is the highest in Shelby County and all of Tennessee. An increase in city taxes and/or reduction in county taxes risks pushing us beyond the tipping point. Hence the skittishness over paying that $57 million owed to MCS or going it alone if Shelby County builds its special district wall.

The exact numbers depend on which suburban municipality you choose for a comparison. But, in general, if Macy’s (Memphis) sells something for $7.50 and Dillards (Germantown) sells a better product for $5, Macy’s is going out of business sooner or later.

On another hot topic, Cash said he will present details of the school closing (aka "consolidation") in December. He didn't say which schools or how many or how much savings will be realized. But he said he foresees deep budget cuts from Nashville and city hall forcing the system to "right size" itself, including personnel.

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