Will Peace Prevail in School Merger?

On August 25, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

August 25, 2011

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The announcement of the agreement on a unified school district was picture perfect Wednesday. Former opposing gladiators put down their swords for a moment of peace. But is it a lasting peace, and is the school merger really a done deal?

It was a cryptic assessment that came during one of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s “sermon on the mount” type appearances before Memphis City Council members mired in discussion about the future of school consolidation five years ago. “Education is about politics,” he said. “There’s a politics of education.”

But for decades when it came to school consolidation, the only education involved was learning how many times and in how many insulting and divisive ways could politicians it would never happen.

Shelby County School Board President David Pickler in 2003:
“We are absolutely opposed to consolidation of schools here in this community.

Willie Herenton in 2003:
“Let their schools be overcrowded. They boast of having superior schools. They ought to pay for them.”

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy in 1996:
“It’s very difficult to do anything than to say this doesn’t seem to work for us, especially with so many unanswered questions.”

Former Memphis City Councilman Brent Taylor in 2003:
“Change is coming. You can either be part of it or you can be an obstructionist and we’ll go around you and you’ll render yourself irrelevant in the debate.”

Steve Cohen as Tennessee State Senator in 2003:
“Most legislators think this is a local issue and they don’t like to take away from another elected political body as the school board is.”

So, how in the world did we manage to, in roughly 9 months, stand on the brink of a legitimate settlement to merge Memphis City and Shelby County School systems? Why couldn’t we have done it 20 years ago, 10 years ago? Well, just as with telling a good joke or knowing when to get married, Memphis Daily News reporter Bill Dries surmised, “Everything in politics is timing and if you don’t believe this is political then you’re living on the wrong planet and in the wrong city.”

Remember, the perceived threat Shelby County Schools might break off into a special school district began with the tipped political scales of an historic Republican takeover of the Tennessee General Assembly. Memphis Flyer columnist Jackson Baker noted, “The overwhelming Republican victory in the election of 2010 overthrew that balance, created an imbalance – and when things are in a swirl like that you’ve got to have change. Big change.”

And lo and behold, dramatic, jaw-dropping “changes” have come too numerous to mention and capped off by Wednesday’s announcement. Certainly, with all sides mouthing the same words of appeasement, nothing could go wrong now… could it?

“The Board could be too big with 23 members and it could be a gridlock,” Dries said. “You could have a change in the direction with a 23 member board that fundamentally changes, in particular, the reform efforts that Kriner Cash has built his stay here around.”

Jackson predicted, “It was all peace and harmony this week. But, I think there’s going to be some factions, fractions, upheavals in that group.”

That maybe true, yet maybe all of us should hearken back to the words from State Senator Mark Norris that have grown even sager with each successful step of the consolidation process.

“Unification without unity defeats its purpose. Unity is preferred.”

In talking with SCS Superintendent John Aitken, he commented that to be able to get all this out on the table after all these years is, in a word, “refreshing.”


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