Willie Herenton is planning on taking the city schools to court over a referendum to see if the voters want -- as he thinks they must -- a joint school system.
Perhaps when we talk about school consolidation, we should really be talking about total consolidation. Says Herenton's press secretary, Gale Jones Carson, "Education is such an emotional issue. ... The mayor's idea is to take on the hardest piece first ... and then the consolidation of both governments will follow."
A good thought, but so far it's only created tension and a growing disbelief that consolidation will ever take place. The county school board is digging in its heels and the city school board -- as members have said numerous times -- really needs to focus on student achievement before it tries to tackle anything else.
When the county and city school boards met together last week, city school board commissioner Michael Hooks Jr. joked he couldn't remember what the beef between the two systems was about and maybe they ought to get together. "We could hold our board meetings right here in this room," he suggested.
Hooks, a pol who has always said he is for consolidation in theory, was met with some friendly laughter and then a very polite thank-you-but-not-in-this-lifetime from county school board member Ron Lollar.
Though it's a linchpin of Herenton's most recent offensive, a reorganized city and county school board would simply be an added bonus to a larger issue.
The city and county governments both employ roughly the same number of people: 6,700. A C Wharton makes $150,000 a year as mayor of Shelby County; Herenton makes about $10,000 less. The current interim chief administrative officer for the city makes $117,000 a year, while the county's CAO makes almost $130,000. Mark Luttrell Jr. makes $107,000 as the county's sheriff. The city's new police chief, James Bolden Jr., makes $110,000.
It's almost laughable when you consider the Memphis City Schools system employs 14,402, more than the city and county governments combined, and that Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson's salary tops out at $200,000. The county school system only has one employee who makes more than $100,000: its superintendent.
Several members of the city council have come out in favor of a totally consolidated government in a "good-for-the-gander" argument. So maybe consolidation should start with the goose.
Russell Gwatney, one of Herenton's advisers on the mayor's earlier school reform plan, says that combining school systems is the only way both governments will ever consolidate.
"Take the sheriff's responsibility as a policing agent. As the city of Memphis grows, you'll see a shrinking service area of the county sheriff," says Gwatney. "With a shrinking service area, you assume there will be a shrinking need. As the population shifts into Memphis or Collierville or Bartlett, the county has no place to go. Memphis has its own police department; Germantown has its own; Bartlett has its own. Ultimately we're going to have to realize these things."
The real triumph of consolidation, though, would be creating a new mindset. For years, Memphis has been the victim of a second-class-citizen complex. With the spate of governments, there's a constant tug of war for tax dollars, combined with some serious geographic and racial biases. "If it stays 'us' and 'them,'"says Gwatney, "we're going to keep fighting that war. It's got to become 'we.'"
Shelby County trustee Bob Patterson was at last week's joint meeting and said he was ready for consolidation whenever the voters were.
"Atlanta has more than one county and over one and a half million people," said Patterson. "Our community includes eight cities and a county, and our perception is completely different. Mentally, they have the attitude that they're Atlanta."
Maybe we should all just work toward learning to be Memphis.n
Mary Cashiola is a staff writer for the Flyer who covers education.