Suburbs Vow to Fight Schools Merger

On March 9, 2011, in News 2011, Tennessee Schools, by Mark Norris

By Cameron McWhirter And Timothy W. Martin, Wall Street Journal
March 9, 2011

Officials in the suburbs of Memphis, Tenn., said Wednesday they would fight what they see as a shotgun marriage that joins its school system with that of the city, claiming the move will harm academic standards and increase bureaucracy.

City residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to merge its school system—the largest in Tennessee—with the system run by surrounding Shelby County. The two systems operate as separate entities and administrations, but draw money from the same county-wide tax-revenue base—rare for school districts.

The move by the Memphis schools, which still faces a federal lawsuit, has drawn the ire of suburban politicians.

“We will proceed, whether through legislative or judicial channels, to try to undo what we believe has been an ill-conceived and poorly executed plan to take over the Shelby County school system,” said David Pickler, chairman of the Shelby County school board.

Creating a large school system from the two existing boards would likely hurt academic achievement, expand bureaucracy and burden taxpayers, said Mr. Pickler. Large school systems in the U.S. had suffered, not excelled, in recent years, he said.

Supporters of the merger disagreed. Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said the view that the city’s schools are failing and inefficient was outdated, pointing to their 70.8% high-school graduation rate.

Mr. Pickler said he would comply with state law to create a transition team to oversee the two-and-a-half-year process of merging the 103,000-student city system with its 47,000 student suburban counterpart.

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam called for the two sides to pull together, declaring, “Now comes the time for city and county leaders—in government, in education and in the community—to come together to develop a comprehensive plan to create a unified school district.”

In December, the cash-strapped Memphis school board voted to dissolve its charter and hand management of its schools to the wealthier Shelby County system. On Tuesday, almost 67% of city voters supported a call to merge the two systems, according to the Shelby County Election Commission. Suburbanites in Shelby County weren’t allowed to participate in the referendum.

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Republican who represents those suburbs, said a merger “could be a very good thing,” but time would be needed to make sure it is handled properly and to heal wounds caused by “ugly, outmoded” racial remarks made recently.

The comments section of the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s online story on the referendum contained heated remarks on race. Memphis and its schools are predominantly black while the suburbs are mostly white.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who supports the merger and is confident it will clear all legal hurdles, said a unified school system would reduce bureaucracy. It wouldn’t result in a mass exodus of Memphis city students moving to suburban schools, he added. “The days of bussing out for racial balance, that stuff is gone,” he said.

While race and politics have played a large role in the dispute, the core issue is tax money.

In the 1800s, Memphis set up its own school system within Shelby County as a way to fund better schools in a city that was then more prosperous than the rural county. Today, Memphis is the largest city in the state but has grown poorer, while the suburbs have flourished and developed a healthy tax base.

Currently, school taxes are raised by the county and distributed to the two systems based on how many students attend each. In recent years, the city system has suffered financial problems.

At the same time, suburban leaders have pushed for special districts in the suburbs, which would have their own taxing authority. Many Memphis residents saw the moves as a way to reduce the county’s financial payments to the city schools. When Republicans won commanding majorities in both houses of the state legislature last fall, as well as the governorship, Memphis school-board members voted to hand control to Shelby County to stop new special districts.

In February, the Shelby County Board of Education filed a federal lawsuit against the Memphis City Board of Education challenging the board’s surrender of its charter. That case is pending.

Diane George, a member of the Shelby County school board, said both sides should seek a smooth transition. “We’ve got to be mature about this and we’ve got to stop using our children as weapons,” she said.


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