News » News Feature


Not without a tangle or two, a dialogue on consolidation begins at The Pyramid.


It took a few weeks, but Cameron Harper of ABC News-24 (who was, ironically, absent for the payoff) got his question answered Wednesday. In the course of delivering a detailed plan for school consolidation to a roomful of city and county office-holders at The Pyramid, Mayor Willie Herenton said that, if need be to achieve “the big M” (for Metro government), “I would resign.”

It was more or less the same answer WPTY anchor Harper was seeking when, after a recent Herenton appearance at the Memphis Rotary Club, he and Herenton tangled verbally -- with the mayor taking umbrage at Harper’s persistence and warning him not to touch him.

Though there was a minor verbal ruckus involving two city council members at the end of Wednesday’s command performance (held in the building’s “King’s Chambers”), the predominant mood of attendees was one of respectful attention as Herenton outlined a program for educational consolidation that envisioned five coequal and commonly funded school districts throughout Shelby County, each with a de facto regional autonomy, though a chancellor and a nine-member Board of Education would provide an umbrella administration.

The plan would ease the burden of city and county taxpayers ad promote efficiency without any radical alteration of current attendance patterns, said Herenton, who offered his plan as the alternative to a “state of denial” on the part of some local government and education officials.

On balance, there was movement in the mayor’s direction. While county commissioners Marilyn Loeffel and Joyce Avery, both Republicans who represent suburban constituencies, professed wariness at both the proposal and Herenton himself -- “You have to consider the messenger,” noted Loeffel -- two of their colleagues, Republican Bruce Thompson and Democrat Deidre Malone, said they welcomed the overture and thought his proposal was worth considering. “At least we’ve got a dialogue started,” said Thompson.

A similar sentiment was expressed by city council members Barbara Holt and E.C. Jones. “There’s a lot to talk about here,” Jones said.

Perhaps predictably, Shelby County school board president David Pickler, a firm opponent of consolidation, was not so positive. Though agreeing with Herenton that a “fiscal crisis” existed, Pickler rejected the Herenton proposal as the basis for a solution. “I think it’s appropriate that we heard this in a building designed like an ancient tomb,” Pickler said. “This plan is D.O.A.”

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton promised to examine the Herenton plan but said he would make no definitive response to it without “my commission chairman” by his side nor without the approval of a commission majority.

Most attendees said they needed time to study the proposal, and there seemed to be no great rush to have an immediate discussion. An apparent exception had been council member Carol Chumney, who, at the end of Herenton’s lengthy presentation, began a long discourse of her own, the point of which seemed to be that the mayor’s plan resembled consolidation proposals she had made during an unsuccessful race for county mayor in 2002.

She had reached the point of reprising her decision not to solicit campaign money from developers when Herenton cut in: “Miss Chumney, I don’t think we need this shit,” muting the last word somewhat, and continued on, “I don't feel comfortable going through and hearing all this political dialogue and stuff."

At that point, councilman Brent Taylor interrupted by way of supporting Chumney, a sometime antagonist of his. “Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, we listened to you and you could at least show us the same courtesy,” he said. Taylor, who represents an East Memphis/Cordova constituency where Herenton’s popularity has suffered in recent months, later made a point of stalking out.

Herenton meanwhile chose to sit down briefly and delivered this sally to Chumney, "I don't need to hear about her political campaign where she lost,” adding,"You’re gonna lose the next one too." The outspoken Chumney is regarded as an almost certain candidate for city mayor in 2007 -- or earlier, if, for any reason, a special election should occur.

Though there was no formal action taken to close the meeting, the exchange between the mayor and Chumney was the effective finale to it, and, when Herenton shortly left, so did everybody else -- though, again, not without an apparent consensus that an overdue dialogue had started that should -- and would -- continue.

Mayor Herenton's proposed school map.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment