Editorial: Who’s talking about the students?

On December 15, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

As officials trade threats and rhetoric about the future of local schools, no one is talking about the future of their students.

Commercial Appeal
December 15, 2010

Here’s what Memphis and Shelby County residents are not hearing from public officials in the roiling drama developing over Shelby County Schools’ push to become a special school district.

Nobody’s talking about the interests of the 150,000-plus students who attend city and county schools.

Search our databases. That fact came through loud and clear Monday during a “summit” of government officials and school board members to discuss the ramifications of the possibility that Memphis City Schools might surrender its charter to head off SCS becoming a special school district.

Surrender of the MCS charter would effectively consolidate the two school districts under the county school board.

There is concern by some members of the Memphis school board and others that a Shelby County special school district would jeopardize the city schools’ funding that comes from Shelby County government. They believe the best way to thwart the county school board’s push is to resort to the “nuclear option” of surrendering the MCS charter.

But is it? No one really knows, or appears to be thinking very carefully about what would happen as a result of whatever decision is made.

The school boards are supposed to be making decisions based on what’s best for the students and future students.

Amid the rhetoric and political posturing, no one seems to be looking down the road to determine whether either decision will allow children in both systems to be adequately educated.

This debate shows the community is paying a painful price for the acrimony that too often surfaces between city and county interests.

There is no denying that some elected officials and public figures on both sides of that city-suburban divide have made political hay out of that acrimony.

The seemingly incessant push from the suburbs to divorce themselves from the city of Memphis, and the retaliatory rhetoric and pushback by some inside the city certainly aggravate the situation.

This is evident in county school board chairman David Pickler’s reason for pushing for a special county school district: to freeze county schools’ boundaries as a barrier to the possibility of future consolidation of the schools.

That kind of us-versus-them acrimony, however, breeds distrust, and distrust certainly is a factor in the proposal before the MCS board to ask Memphis voters to decide whether to give up the school district’s charter.

The head of the county’s state legislative delegation, Rep. G. A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, bluntly confirmed that when he said Monday that he doesn’t trust those pushing a special school district to do what they say.

State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the Senate majority leader, has said he would block efforts to allow special districts, so long as MCS agrees to back away from charter surrender and engage in substantive discussions.

But Hardaway points out that there are other entities in the state, including the Tennessee School Boards Association, that are also pushing for the ban on special districts to be lifted by the General Assembly next year.

That makes the issue a lot bigger than Shelby County, and maybe Norris’ influence.

Given the fact that no one really knows how the dominoes will topple if SCS becomes a special school district or if MCS surrenders its charter, both sides should stand down. What’s needed now is stronger leadership to push discussions over how either move would affect the education of the county’s children.

In our minds, that role should be embraced by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and county Mayor Mark Luttrell. Both men have called for more talks on the issue, but we urge them to go a step further and use the stock they have earned as consensus-builders to get all sides to sit down and come up with a plan to adequately educate all the county’s children without blowing up one school system to do so.

Those discussion also should include meaningful recommendations on how to adequately fund education in Memphis and Shelby County.

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