Memphis to Vote on Transferring School System to County

On January 27, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Campbell Robertson, New York Times
January 27, 2011

MEMPHIS — Upon returning to his hometown after more than a decade away, Martavius Jones began spending his evenings at school board meetings.

A peculiar hobby, as he had no children, but Mr. Jones was bothered by the sorry reputation of the schools that produced him and, as a financial adviser, interested in the handful of pension plans in the system. Seven years later, he was a board member. In 2009, he served a term as president.

And this past Nov. 22, Mr. Jones proposed doing away with the Memphis city school system altogether.

The voluntary surrender of the city schools’ charter, since backed by the City Council and most of the school board, has led to an extraordinary standoff between Tennessee’s largest county and its largest city, a showdown charged with issues of money, politics, class and race.

It is headed for a citywide referendum in March, and if it is approved, the residents of Memphis and surrounding Shelby County are likely to find themselves together in uncharted territory.

“You’re through the looking glass here,” said Shea Flinn, a Memphis city councilman.

The surrender, as Mr. Flinn describes it, was a pre-emptive strike, a way to head off a plan by the separate county school system that could have led to a drastic shortfall in city school revenues. With no Memphis school system, the city schools instead would become the county’s responsibility.

Opponents of the move, an unlikely coalition of suburban residents, Republican state lawmakers, a Memphis teachers’ union and several of the city’s black ministers, see it as an unnecessary provocation, one that could end up hurting schools countywide.

The city of Memphis sprawls over most of Shelby County, its residents making up around three-quarters of the county’s population. But city and county have maintained semi-separate governments — two mayors, a city council and a county commission and separate city and county school systems.

Plans to merge the two governments have been frequently put forth, though the most recent proposal, which left the schools out, was rejected in November. Opposition came mainly from the suburbs.

Like many in the suburbs, David Pickler, chairman of the county school board, has long harbored plans for a so-called special district of non-Memphis schools. Such a district would freeze the boundaries of the county school system, thus preserving county control and blocking any effort at a consolidated system.

The creation of special districts, which proliferated in Tennessee after school integration, was banned in 1982. But Republicans just won an unprecedented majority in the state legislature, and with the Republicans’ suburban base, a special district in Shelby County appeared highly likely.

Memphians watched this with concern.

The worry came down to financing: currently, property tax revenues in Shelby County are collected from everyone in the county and divided among all the schools, city and county both, based on daily attendance figures. Though city schools receive some additional money from a city-only tax, they rely heavily on taxes from the more affluent suburbs.

But, traditionally, special districts are fiscally independent, spending the property tax revenues from their residents exclusively on their own schools. If the Shelby County school system became this kind of special district, Memphis schools would face a serious revenue shortfall.

Mr. Pickler insists that in pursuing a special district, the county school board simply wants to ensure its autonomy, and that he has never sought to change the financing structure. The financing issue is a red herring, he says, an excuse by city officials to push through school consolidation, which he believes would lead to lower academic quality and higher costs for everyone, particularly suburban residents.

But proponents of surrender say they had never heard Mr. Pickler or any special district supporters suggest keeping the current financing structure. They believe that transferring city schools to the county is the only way to guarantee that they will not be frozen out by the suburbs.

Mr. Jones also freely admits that he is against the idea of separate systems — a city one, whose students are overwhelmingly poor, and a wealthier county one — as a matter of principle.

So, facing the possibility of a suburban special district, the city played its trump card.

A consolidated school district would have to address a seemingly endless list of issues, including employee contracts, curriculum choices, charter schools and federal and state financing.

Municipal districts in Tennessee have dissolved into county ones before, but never on this scale. The Shelby County system, with 47,000 students, would absorb a system of 103,000, creating the 14th-largest school district in the country.

“In no other case did we have this inversion where the surrendering system dwarfed the receiving system,” said Mark Norris, the Republican Senate majority leader, whose district includes parts of suburban Shelby County.

Because of the lopsided numbers, Senator Norris argues that this would not be a surrender, a sort of “we’re going out of business” declaration that can be achieved legally by a city referendum. He contends that it is more like a takeover, and that another, more comprehensive set of school consolidation rules should apply. These rules require a planning commission, and a majority approval by suburban voters as well as city voters. That voting arrangement, as it happens, would effectively doom the city’s plan.

Senator Norris has proposed a bill reinforcing his interpretation and it is likely to become law before the city referendum, setting up what would probably be one of many court battles.

Beneath the legal disputes lie the enduring historical and social realities, the relationship between a struggling city and the communities that were largely built up by those who fled from it.

“It’s the city-county split that has to do with race and class,” said Mike Carpenter, a Republican county commissioner who reluctantly supports the charter surrender, though with concerns about the transition.

Eighty-seven percent of Memphis students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared with 37 percent of suburban students. Of the children in Shelby County living in poverty, 9 out of 10 are within the city limits.

While nearly half the students in suburban schools are minorities, the county school board is entirely white, something that would certainly change with countywide elections.

But opinions do not fall neatly along racial lines. Some of the city’s black ministers oppose the surrender, seeing it as too divisive.

“Like busing,” said Rev. Dwight Montgomery, who leads the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Busing hurt. It seemed like a good idea.”

Ads for private schools have become more frequent, suburban residents say. Suburban municipalities are considering creating their own districts. Residents of neighboring counties are anticipating a jump in property values. And officials are warning that the city is a glimpse of the suburbs’ possible future.

“The same people who are running Memphis city schools,” Mr. Pickler said, “could very likely be running a unified Shelby County school board.”

Many Memphians, dismissing all this as fear-mongering, are hopeful. Such a radical overhaul, they say, could upend entrenched interests and force hard choices. And it could allow city schools the rare opportunity of a fresh start.

“If you set aside the issue that we don’t have a plan,” Mr. Carpenter said, half-jokingly, “look at the possibilities.”


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