It seems like forever, but really it's only been slightly more than two years since the clouds first gathered over public education in Memphis and Shelby County, and the storms they presaged have not yet abated. Among our hopes for the coming year, one of the foremost is that the chaos that has rained down upon us since the beginnings of the school-merger crisis will be resolved — judicially, legislatively, howsoever.
To recap just how we got here from there: The elections of 2010 proved disruptive in more than one way. First, the August countywide voting of that year produced an unexpected blanket win for a Republican slate of candidates in the face of a demographic base that seemed ready-made for Democrats. That circumstance encouraged suspicions of electoral hanky-panky among Democratic-leaning voters in general and the African Americans who now constituted a majority in Shelby County in particular. And, though no credible evidence has emerged to demonstrate that anything untoward had occurred, misgivings (as well as legal challenges to the outcome) have not yet been stilled. If anything, a nonstop series of glitches that marred the election process, not only in 2010 but even more glaringly in 2012, have magnified a discord which existed at all levels — political, social, racial, and economic.
The election results of November 2010 fostered further division. A referendum on political consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County was on the ballot to rekindle passions and animosities, and it went down in flames in outer Shelby County while eking out a bare majority within the city limits of Memphis. Bad omen. And, fueled by Tea Party resentments, the Republican sweep of legislative races statewide in that election was the proximate cause of the school crisis.
Popular legend has it that David Pickler, then the long-standing president of the Shelby County Schools board, was first mover when he opined out loud that the General Assembly would now be likely to approve special-school-district status for SCS. Pickler himself notes that Martavius Jones, his opposite number on the Memphis City Schools board, had already vented the idea of surrendering the MCS charter to force city/county school merger. The chicken-egg question hardly matters: The charter surrender occurred, and the merger process got under way, as did legislative efforts to abort it or deflect it on behalf of the Shelby County suburbs.
Although Judge Hardy Mays has not ruled on all aspects of the ensuing litigation — specifically, on whether the Norris-Todd Act of 2011 allows suburban municipal school districts to begin forming after August 2013 in Shelby County — he has already found unconstitutional a bill by state senator Mark Norris that would have made for an early kick-start of such Shelby-only schools.
The result is that there will apparently be, in both name and in fact, a Unified School District for at least the 2013-14 academic year. Our hope is that residents of the suburbs will give the new system a chance to work in what amounts to a court-ordained laboratory period. This is one of those times when a little constructive second-guessing would seem to be in order.