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Metropolitans Out of Molehills


The symbolism intentional or not was unfortunate.

When Mayor Willie Herenton presented his metropolitan school plan last week, he was at our very own "Tomb of Doom" in a room called the King's Chambers.

The plan was for an all-encompassing Shelby County school district, yet it was City Council members and county commissioners at the table, not members of the two school boards.

And the plan being presented was more than two years old.

Sometimes what you don't say is more important than what you do say. These hard-to-ignore details said, "Second verse, same as the first."

Since the meeting, much has been made of the mayor's promise to resign if the city and county governments consolidate. Much has also been made of the continuing cage match between the mayor and certain City Council members.

They're both catchy hooks, but what happens when we get to the bridge? Maybe it's time we all learned a new song.

At full annexation by the city agreed upon in 2000 as part of the 20-year countywide growth plan Memphis will stretch all the way to the Fayette County line between Stage Road and the Wolf River. And the capital funding formula won't be $3 to the city schools for every $1 to the county schools; it will be $5 for every $1.

Want to build a $25 million school in Collierville? Better be ready to pony up $150 million, about a fifth of the city schools' current budget.

Kind of puts a few temper tantrums in perspective.

Herenton proposed a 20-member community task force with four members each from the city, the county, the suburban communities, the school systems, and the local business community. The group would review Herenton's plan "critically dissect it, analyze it, tear it apart" as he put it and would also serve as a clearinghouse for any other proposed solutions.

Along with Ron Belz, TaJuan Stout Mitchell, and Robert Lipscomb, Russell Gwatney is one of the city nominees to the task force. He's been involved in trying to solve school financing since 1999 and says he doesn't know what, if anything, will be different this time around.

"The problem is, the mayor's talking, but not everyone understands why," says Gwatney. "Until the county commission, the suburban mayors, the City Council, and the school boards sit down and really pay attention to what's going on in the county, I think we're going to come up with Band-Aid approaches."

For instance, of the top 10 Tennessee cities with the highest property tax rates, four of them are in Shelby County.

"Memphis has the highest property tax in Tennessee," says Gwatney, "but why is Germantown third? Why is Collierville sixth? Why is Bartlett seventh? It's not because Memphis did anything; it's because county taxes are so high."

By comparison, Nashville is 28th. Memphis' property tax is about 53 percent higher than that of the capital city.

"The real issue is the failure to solve the school-funding problem, whether it's by freezing the boundaries in perpetuity, special school districts, or creating a countywide school system," says Gwatney. "To leave it unsolved is less responsible than trying to do something to fix it."

It's unclear exactly what will happen now. Although listening didn't seem to be on the agenda in the King's Chambers, Herenton said he's willing to hear other plans.

"It's difficult for me to cooperate with the status quo, when the status quo doesn't take us out of our dilemma," he told the group.

I have a suggestion. Let's have a fresh start. Throw out all the old connotations. If you want to have a meeting in The Pyramid, you have to realize that it's like a shiny pimple on the lip of the city. Sure, it's the signature of the skyline, but it has come to represent everything wrong with Memphis.

For the mayor's purposes, the observation deck may have been a better choice than the King's Chambers. The breathtaking view might have reminded our leaders that our entire community's future is at stake. The 10-minute climb (and that's conservative) up 32 stories would have reminded everyone that tackling challenges requires hard work.

And then maybe everyone would have gotten the point.

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