Monday, April 10, 2006

Merger Of Our Two School Districts Deserves A Place On The Agenda

It’s been almost an exact year since Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton convened a group of civic leaders to hear his presentation – the most thorough, documented and intelligent one given in this community - on a possible future for our dual school system as a single, merged one.

It was his attempt to set in motion a process that would consider the consolidation of the city and county schools systems, and the logic of his argument, based on the data that he presented, should have made it a priority for public debate.

However, the substance of his presentation got no media coverage, because reporters were instead captivated by the no-shows of the petulant chairs of the two school systems, Wanda Halbert and David Pickler. Rather than setting the stage for a much-needed civic conversation about educational policy, the media instead sacrificed policy debate in pursuit of personality conflict.

It was a lesson in how much any proposal by Mayor Herenton polarizes the community, and by the first of September, he had bowed out of the process to look into the relative merits or demerits of consolidation.

In truth, the mayor’s proposal hardly reflected strict consolidation as we know it. Rather, it was a pragmatic merger of operational services, while setting up five districts with approximately 41 schools each and 32,000 students.

It was anything but a bomb-throwing performance by Mayor Herenton. After all, a similar structure had been proposed almost 20 years earlier by former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris, who saw it as a way to eliminate the onerous county debt which was back then beginning to climb as a result of ADA (Average Daily Attendance) requirements for funding.

By the time Herenton waved the white flag and abandoned yet another of his campaigns for consolidation, City Hall staff said that the committee had already been hijacked by interests largely sympathetic to the concerns of the Shelby County Board of Education.

With a recent article by Ruma Banerji Kumar in The Commercial Appeal, those same City Hall observers had only one comment: “We told you so.” According to the newspaper report, six scenarios for the future center on creating special school districts, the fulfillment of the county school system’s long-held dream to fight its eventual irrelevance. As more and more of the unincorporated area is annexed and Memphis City Schools assumes responsibility for education there, the district is predicted to have about 25 percent fewer student in 15 years.

The news coverage made no mention by the committee of any study of the merger of the two school systems, which has taken place in every other major metropolitan area (including Jackson), but not in Memphis. Apparently, the political specter of Mayor Herenton hung too heavily over a proposal for merging the systems, and his visage always produces a highly-charged political atmosphere that dooms any hope for consensus. This time, however, his idea deserved a better fate.

The merger of the two school districts is the cleanest organizationally, it’s the most transparent and it’s the most easily understood. And county school officials’ rhetoric to the contrary, it does not bring about the end of Western civilization as we know it.

That said, we’re not even arguing that it should be the final recommendation. We’re just suggesting that it deserves serious consideration, and that if county school influence can force a discussion about special school districts on city school officials, surely the county school officials should at least have to consider merger of the two systems.

After all, in the past decade, the two systems have cost the community $9 billion dollars. Keep in mind that 72 percent of all the families in this community do not have children in either district, and it’s easy to conclude that it’s the majority interest in cutting costs and increasing efficiency that is too often ignored in favor of the parochial political interests of one system or another.
After all, a review of operating expenses for the four largest counties in Tennessee plus Jackson/Madison County show that it is our school districts that have recorded the largest increases in their budgets – 91.2 percent for county schools and 94 percent for Memphis City Schools.

Meanwhile, budgets for the consolidation district of Jackson/Madison County increased 50.2 percent, Chattanooga/Hamilton County 60.8 percent; Knoxville/Knox County 64.9 percent; and Nashville/Davidson County 73.5 percent.

Equally telling is the fact that suburban Tennessee schools in Brentwood, Oak Ridge, Franklin and Nashville made it on the list of 1,000 top schools in the U.S. There’s not one Shelby County School despite the frequent chest-thumping about the excellent education offered there. It’s supreme irony that once again the only local school on the list is White Station, yes, part of the Memphis City Schools.

It makes at least a prima facie case to look closer at Mayor Herenton’s proposal for a merged system with multiple districts. Recommendations about converting Shelby County Schools into a special district is a minefield, and for it to be approved, it will demand that the needs of Memphis City Schools are not only addressed, but that there’s serious money behind it to make it worth the city schools’ support.

In the end, there was a time about 15 years ago when freezing the school boundaries might have been a policy initiative that could have influenced flight out of Shelby County, but in light of annexations in that same period of time, it’s almost academic now, excuse the pun.

The thrust of Memphis’ growth remains eastward, and the annexation reserve agreements have in effect already frozen school district boundaries. These agreements were the product of the “tiny town” controversy and passage of the Chapter 1001 planning process, which moved 150 square miles of Memphis’ annexation area to the smaller municipalities.

In this way, the size of the county school district – even with no special district – has already been increased by 150 square miles. With a special school district, only the area between eastern Cordova to Fisherville and the Fayette county line would be affected, unless you are the solitary planner who predicts a boomtime for north Shelby County.

Special school districts feel on some days like one of those political battles that have been made essentially moot by changing times, but that remains on the agendas of the politicians who can’t grasp the fact that times have passed them by.

Impressively, the Five-Year Facilities Master Plan issued by Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson has poked a gaping hole in the popular myth that her system doesn’t need capital funding and it has enriched itself from the unfairness of the ADA funding requirements.

In truth, as Superintendent Johnson has meticulously shown, the capital needs of her district are substantial and should be the driving force in any discussions about school funding. The smaller county district has driven the agenda for the past 20 years, and it’s time to get our priorities in the right order.

Back to the prospects for a special district, as Memphis City School Commissioner Wanda Halbert was quoted in The Commercial Appeal article: “I feel like Memphis City Schools comes second. That’s starting to weigh on me.”

The task force looking into the crystal ball for the future of our school districts would be wise to fight their temptation to be dismissive of her opinion. It represents the very serious reality that stands between them and creation of a special district.

4 comments:

mike said...

Pray tell, if we've spent $9 billion at twice the budget levels of neighboring school districts, where has the money gone?

And while the economic and political benefits of consolidation are inarguable, the race issue and the quality of Memphis schools issue (along with their strong resistance to change and to accountability metrics) must be considered. Dr. Johnson excels at a PR image of meaningful improvement, but scratching the surface still reveals endemic problems. I tend to agree with those who fear the entire school population under the control of MCS.

To simply force the issue politically will send tens of thousands fleeing across county and state lines. It's not good for Memphis, nor for the other counties around us.

BTW, White Station is a magnet school, something you failed to point out. It gets the cream of the entire school system and special treatment. It's not at all typical of the MCS system.

LeftWingCracker said...

So why hasn't SCS come up with a magnet school?

The problem here is that even when Herenton HAS good ideas, his mere association with them kills them.

Now, Mike, what do you mean when you say that the race issue MUST be considered?

Are you saying that white people simply will not allow their children to attend schools with black children?

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: We suggest that if you scratch below the surface of Shelby County Schools, and compare it to districts with its socio-economic profile, it's a low performer. Keep in mind that its the county schools that are the masters of control and power, fighting against charter schools and any other entrepreneurial school model, many of which are being tested now in Memphis City Schools. And most of all, if the school systems are consolidated, there's no reason to assume the entire school population would come under the control of MCS. In truth, MCS would cease to exist, just as city government would cease to exist if there were a consolidation of local government. Within 15 years, this will be a majority minority metro area - the first with more than 1 million people that has an African-American majority, and Shelby County Schools, which already has a sizeable percentage of black students, will be majority African-American. For that reason, race is a red herring when some people bring it up (although you are exempt from that group as a serious thinker on these issues), because when our demographic trends play out, this will be an African-American metro, and we need to deal directly with this reality and the opportunities that flow from it. We weren't intending to make the point that White Station is typical of MCS, but what it shows is that when MCS has a school that mirrors many of the indicators found in county schools, it seems to outperform its counterpart. SCC

BraveCordovaDem said...

Creating a special District for the county seems like a permanent solution to a temporary problem with the City schools. I can’t see anything good coming out of it for the County as a whole. I saw little in the way of imagination out of the task forces proposals. Does this group have any authority or are they simply an advisory body?