By the time this week is done, Memphis and Shelby County will have begun the process of remaking themselves. No, that won't be the result of this week's city election, which, no matter what surprises it may hold in store, isn't likely to transform the nature of local government. The difference will come from the mere fact that, as of October 1st, according to a series of rulings by federal judge Hardy Mays and pursuant to a memorandum of understanding between various parties, the city and county, for the first time in two centuries, will have their public schools governed by a single entity.
If all goes well, that governing body, the newly created 23-member interim Shelby County school board, will oversee a smooth transition to a fully unified public school system serving the inner city of Memphis as well as the far corners of the county — Idlewild and Eads, New Chicago and Forest Hill-Irene, Whitehaven and Woodstock. It is possible, though, and thought likely in many quarters, that the suburban municipalities will resolve on going their own way with independent school systems in September 2013, as is enabled in the Norris-Todd bill, which guides this ongoing merger of the erstwhile Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools.
Should that be the case, something will still have been gained. City residents will come out from under the burden of double taxation they currently endure. For them, the elusive chimera of single-source funding will have come at last. And the residents of the outer county, should their jurisdictions resolve on separate systems, will be shouldering an additional tax burden, but they will have the educational independence (read: independence from the city of Memphis) that so many of them seem to desire. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
Whatever takes place two years down the pike, we trust that the new interim school board will explore the prospect of unity rather than mark time until the point at which separation again becomes possible in 2013. This is going to be a neat trick, inasmuch as key members of both the interim school board and the 21-member transitional committee created by Norris-Todd are on record as pursuing one or more special school districts in Shelby County. As examples, the city governments of Arlington, whose mayor, Mike Wissman, serves on the interim board, and Bartlett, whose mayor, Keith McDonald, is a member of the transition committee, have already contracted with Southern Education Services to prepare the way for special school districts, and neither Wissman nor McDonald has been hesitant about announcing that purpose. Wissman has been explicit, in fact, in foreseeing — and welcoming — a re-creation of the previously constituted Shelby County Schools system, as it was pre-merger, via the process of amalgamating suburban jurisdictions. And McDonald is equally candid about his determination to acquire existing school buildings and related infrastructure free of charge or as near to that as possible.
"It is what it is" and all other such truisms apply. Still, for the first time in some while, there's the prospect of positive change, of doing something new. We can't help being excited, and we're willing to bet that the folks guiding the process will get that feeling, too.