As Thanksgiving week began, events seemed to be moving quickly toward a final resolution of the Shelby County school situation.
Three years after the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter and the resultant temporary consolidation of city and county schools, Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson's template for allowing independent districts in six suburban municipalities has been approved by his board and seems to have found general favor.
The suburbs — all except Germantown, where hope may still linger for the reclamation of three flagship schools that Hopson intends to hold on to (see Viewpoint, p. 15) — are scrambling to sign on to a deal that involves the de facto sale to them of SCS-owned school buildings, though the legal terms are carefully structured to avoid being a sale per se.
On Friday, as they awaited a meeting of the Shelby County Commission that was specially called to liquidate the commission's long-standing lawsuit against Lakeland and Arlington, the first two municipalities to settle, reporters debated how long the meeting, expected to be the epitome of pro forma, would last.
"Ten minutes," said one. "Five minutes," countered another. And a bystander nodded vigorously in agreement, whether with the first newsman or the second, it was hard to say.
All three would shortly learn otherwise. Germantown is evidently not the only site of remaining discontent.
First came Susanne Jackson, an inveterate activist from the Memphis Education Association orbit and, as she would remind her commission audience, from much further back than that to 1970s and the time of Plan Z desegregation. "Though I know the train has long left the station," she said, she had concerns "about the settlement you're about to make."
These ranged from class-size changes in the new educational order to "troubling equity issues" of various kinds. In particular, she worried about the 10-cents-on-the-dollar price assessed on the transfer of school properties. She concluded by saying, "I want you to think long and hard about your decision."
Jackson was followed by former Memphis City Schools board member Martavius Jones, a prime mover in the December 2010 surrender of the MCS charter that led to the very city-county school merger which is just now being sifted out in a settlement. That settlement will leave a truncated "unified" district with jurisdiction over the old MCS system, the county's unincorporated areas, and a loose network of new municipal districts in the county's six incorporated suburbs.
Jones, who served on the 23-member amalgamated city/county provisional board that expired in July, has made no secret of his hopes to be added on to the current SCS board, if and when it expands from seven members. And he came to the meeting with a full head of steam, complaining that the six suburban municipalities comprise only 18.5 percent of Shelby County's population but, under the terms of the proposed settlement, would have sole access to school buildings whose construction costs were paid by "99 percent of the county."
He said that the county commission, "the only legislative body that represents all of Shelby County," was about to sanction a "separatist and secessionist" system in the outer county and to approve "the most ill-advised real estate proposition since the Louisiana Purchase."
Former Commission chair Mike Ritz, who, by leave of current chair James Harvey, has continued as the body's point man on litigation matters, contradicted Jones' assertions, contending that property taxes paid by citizens were "unrelated to population," that "people in the suburbs" paid an "inordinate" share of the tax burden and, under the agreement, would continue to make "considerable contributions" to the "whole system," i.e., the unified district as well as those in the suburbs.
That was by no means the end of controversy, however, even after the commission parsed a number of technical matters with county attorney Kelly Rayne and special commission attorney Lori Patterson and concurred to drop action against Lakeland. When they turned their attention to Arlington, Commissioner Henri Brooks had a whole new set of grievances to vent.
Brooks had abstained on the Lakeland vote, and now she protested one of the linchpins of the proposed agreement, the premise, as repeated in detail by the two attorneys, that the school buildings being deeded over to Arlington and Lakeland were not being sold, that, instead, the payments being asked of the municipalities were to offset pensions and OPEBs (Other Post-Employment Benefits) and the debt arising from them.
"The constituents I represent are very uncomfortable with that," Brooks said, arguing that "public perceptions" would see it all as a sale. And she had more to say.
"What part of the 14th Amendment is negotiable? What about the children? What are they getting out of this? Do we have a way to protect children who may be resegregated after this settlement? What if there is resegregation? If we drop the claims, that's it?"
This, indeed, was a potential sore spot, since what the commission was voting on was not acceptance of a settlement — the SCS board and the suburbs were attending to that — but dissolving the litigation against the suburbs. In practice, that had come down to the single issue of whether the new municipal school systems in the outer county would be unconstitutionally fostering resegregation.
Brooks made a point of noting that "people of color have moved to the unincorporated areas." She worried that dropping the resegregation claim would leave the children of such pioneers helpless. And Brooks, who was a child in the pre-civil-rights era and has several times recited to her colleagues a litany of indignities she experienced, averred, "I don't want the children of today to relive my experiences."
In an attempt to get beyond this concern, Commissioner Heidi Shafer, whose district straddles city and county, asked Patterson if the commission couldn't just refile a legal action if blatant resegregation developed. Patterson answered that it could.
But Brooks was not put off. She wondered out loud if "a citizen could bring an action against this commission for the settlement" and if an advisory to that effect couldn't be built into the agreement.
Rayne quickly responded: "I would not advise you to approve anything in the agreement opening you up to a lawsuit."
Chairman Harvey translated that thought into stark political terms: "I think the attorney is saying that trying to put that idea in the community's head opens us up to a can of worms."
In the end, Brooks' suggestion got no support, and the commissioner, a candidate for Juvenile Court clerk who sees herself as a tribune for African Americans at large, ended by saying, "My intent is to get an understanding so that I may cast an informed vote for the people."
Shafer, one of five commission Republicans who have consistently supported the suburban municipalities in their efforts for independent school districts, tried to sum up the morning's discussion: "I am supporting this. Everybody's probably equally mad," she said, and that was a good sign. "It's time for us to move forward. Teachers and students have been in a state of terrible uncertainty for three years."
It then fell to her GOP colleague, Terry Roland of Millington, who over the last three years has surely raised his share of hell about school-merger matters, to try to stuff the genie back into the bottle: "It is my pleasure to see closure. I call the question."
The vote this time was 9 to 1, Brooks casting the only no.
The way seems clear now to a formal resolution of the school controversy, at least for the conclusion of agreements this week with Millington, Bartlett, and Collierville, all of which seemed amenable. Conciliatory feelers were even coming from Germantown.
But, as last Friday's special commission meeting made obvious, dissatisfaction of various kinds is likely to endure. And it may well resurface in some form when the commission meets again, for what it hopes is a final mopping-up session, on Monday, December 2nd.
And presiding federal judge Hardy Mays — remember him? He still has to sign off on the deal and, most assuredly, wants to be able to. As soon as the litigation is formally dropped, he'll have no reason not to.