Monday, September 18, 2006

It's Business As Usual For "One Of The Best School Systems In The World"

Shelby County Schools Board chairman David Pickler must have graduated from the George Bush school of self-awareness. He too has a formidable talent for leveling criticisms of others that so clearly apply to himself.

It’s a remarkable gift to have as a politician - the ability to look right into someone’s eyes and engage in misinformation that the Politburo would have admired.

We thought of this as we read the Memphis Flyer article about school construction decisions, and as Mr. Pickler tarred the professional Office of Planning and Development evaluation of potential sites for the Southeast Shelby high school as reeking of a political agenda.

The Eye Of The Beholder

“Our numbers are not written with any political bias and the numbers simply demonstrate that it needed to be built,” he was quoted as saying by the always reliable Flyer writer Mary Cashiola. Left unsaid was the fact that county schools had no evaluation that reflected anything as much as blind justification for the political position already staked out by its board.

But the absence of self-awareness doesn’t stop there. “If we could coordinate where schools need to be constructed, based on population trends, based on developments that have been approved I think it would allow for a far more efficient situation,” he said. Of course that’s exactly what the OPD study did, and if he really wants that level of coordination, why doesn’t he just delegate site evaluation to that joint city-county office? We’re confident that the Memphis City Schools would agree to OPD as a third-party arbiter.

It’s all a curious obfuscation since the OPD report was ordered by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, hardly a political enemy of the county schools, as the first rational study of potential school sites for a county school. While the report didn’t say it this way, our reading of the report led to our opinion that the high school in Southeast Shelby County is the wrong size at the wrong place at the wrong price.

Inconvenient Facts

But inconvenient facts like these have never deterred Mr. Pickler and the Shelby County School Board. That’s why in the coming weeks, you should look for a reprise of the rush to judgment by the board for its latest largess to developers with a mad push to buy property at Shelby Drive and Forest Hill-Irene Road for a new K-8 school.

It will of course have all the trappings of every decision about a county school site. There will be the sense of urgency, the lack of facts, a bogus deadline for action, and indignation that anyone should question its decision. All the while, it will engage in a round of self-important backslapping about its excellent management of the county schools, begging the question that if the management is so good, why can’t we make a decision on a school site that is conducted in an orderly, depoliticized environment?

Here’s our prediction. Shelby County Schools will mandate the site, impose a deadline for buying the property, resist any independent evaluation of whether the site is the right one, reject any questions as political attacks, and fight any attempt by Memphis City Schools – which will inherit the school in a few years – to inject reason into the process.


In the end, it is destined to be a reprise of the Southeast Shelby high school and the Schnucks grocery store school. And as a usual, the reliable thread that ties all of this together will be the board’s cozy relationship with developers.

It’s no secret that Shelby County Schools has been in bed with developers for decades, but the pillow talk these days seems to be coming from the firm, Terry & Terry. The firm quadrupled its investment with the purchase of its land for part of the southeast Shelby high school footprint. Interestingly, the addition of that land helped make the 62-acre site about 50 percent larger than the national standard for a high school – 40 acres (that includes a football field).

Shelby County Schools will probably now recommend the same firm’s land at Forest Hill-Irene and Shelby Drive for its latest school. More important than selling the land, the development firm can then charge a premium for its residential development snuggled up to the school site.

Amazing Coincidences

But such is the way of the world at Shelby County Schools. For as long as any one can remember, developers have picked school sites, and what a surprise, they’ve always been right next to the developer’s own planned residential developments.

So, Mr. Pickler can criticize the 43-page analysis conducted by OPD of the last school site, but it will be interesting to see if the county district can produce the same kind of thorough analysis to show that it has explored all the options carefully and objectively. Or is its analysis limited to an email from the “developer of the month” recommending what the county’s real estate manager should buy?

It’s hard to think of a governmental entity in Shelby County that is less transparent than the Shelby County Board of Education. Thin-skinned and resistant to any ideas that it doesn’t originate, it sees itself as pure of heart and guardian of its political turf. Every one else is misguided and deserves no credit for caring as much about the education of our children as they do.

Back to the question of self-awareness, Mr. Pickler feigns indignation about suggestions that an African-American should be appointed to the all-white school board, which manages a district whose student population approaches 40 percent African-American.

Shades of Adolph Rupp

"Having a litmus test about someone's credentials to serve on the Shelby County Board of Education because of their skin pigmentation is, quite frankly, offensive," he said to The Commercial Appeal and added that the board's decision-making as "color-blind.” Of course, racial politics is the overriding reason for building the Southeast Shelby high school in the first place, but no matter.

He’s not through yet and stretches hyperbole to its breaking point: "I don't care if they are black, white, red or green if they will share that passion and that commitment to helping ensure that this school system continues to be one of the best in the world." It’s the norm in Shelby County Schools to make the case that it’s a superior school system by comparing it with Memphis City Schools, a specious comparison for more reason than we can name, when in fact, the county schools on its best days are average.

It’s all back to that incredible lack of self-awareness. And it’s the main reason that we should all get ready for yet one more divisive fight on this new school site.


autoegocrat said...

I know I've said it before, but it bears repeating: this blog kicks ass.

Smart City Consulting said...

And thanks, autoegocrat, for saying it again. We appreciate it.

Jon said...

I was interested in your reference to Adolph Rupp. I suppose you're trying to suggest Rupp used race as a basis for exclusion.

I'd advise you learn some more about the issue.

If you look through the records, there's no evidence that Rupp tried to exclude black players. If anything, he tried to get black players but was rebuffed by 1.) state law in Kentucky that prevented blacks and white from being educated together (overturned in the 1950s) 2.) the university administration (who denied his requests in the late 50's/early 60's to integrate its programs) and 3.) the SEC which refused Kentucky's attempts to allow integration in the early 1960's.

As it was, Kentucky's athletic council did publicly declare in 1963 their intention to integrate its athletic programs (the university itself had already been integrated) and Rupp set about recruiting black players, making him the 1st coach in the SEC to do so. [In the years leading up to that annoucement, UK did try to bring the issue up to the SEC conference but was rebuffed.]

Kentucky basketball and Rupp were unsuccessful in signing a black player AND getting him onto campus for a long time, but it wasn't for a lack of trying (it can be noted that some in the black community along with rival recruiters etc. tried their hardest to prevent it which didn't help matters) and eventually they WERE successful.

Again, if you look in the actual record, there is no evidence of Rupp championing segregation etc. If anything, his public statements were very much supportive of integration. His actions also supported this (ie coaching black players in the 1920's, coaching a black player in the 1948 Olympics, competing against integrated teams on campus well over a decade before any other SEC team did so, coaching numerous black players in all-star games, holding clinics for black coaches on HBU campuses, helping black athletes receive scholarships when he was not allowed to offer them, making comments in the press discussing his desire to sign black athletes (which resulted in numerous death threats) etc. etc.)

Maybe instead of (wrongly) singling out Rupp for using race as a litmus test, you should single out the people who did, if you insist to single out anyone at all. Rupp, as a member of the broader society that held such stances, deserves some share of criticism, but I don't believe he deserves anywhere near to what he's received by you and others. And he certainly doesn't deserve to be singled out.

Maybe you should do some research and figure out who was at,say, the University of Memphis when they were segregated and try to single them out ? Oh yeah, nobody probably knows who they were, or cares to know for that matter.

Smart City Consulting said...

Jon: Thanks for the information, but my opinion was based on covering this as a reporter at the time. It always seemed that because of his bully pulpit, Coach Rupp could have led the way for equal rights in college basketball, but until his famous "Runts" got whipped by the all-black starting five of TW, he never was serious about recruiting a black player. He finally signed one in 1969, and it's hard to imagine that anything that Rupp wanted that badly would have taken almost a decade to achieve. But that's our opinion, and we appreciate yours.

Anonymous said...

According to the Public Hearing Notice in today's paper, October 1, the new school on Hacks Cross at Shelby Drive won't be a Shelby County School long. (If at all.) This area is up for annexation. The public hearing is Ocober 17.

Anonymous said...

As I said, I don't know you, so maybe you did do a lot. But I am pretty confidant in saying that looking back, there's probably some things during that time that you feel you could of and should have done better.

The same could be said for Adolph Rupp. Rupp was not a civil rights activist by any means, that was not what he was about. But despite that he was indeed at the forefront at breaking down a number of barriers when it came to the integration of college basketball, especially in the South. He also, from first-hand accounts, was a decent person when it came to interacting with black people. Despite what a lot of people assume or have been told second-hand, there is no evidence that Rupp did anything during his career to erect barriers to integration.

You mention Rupp's bully pulpit. I frankly think that's a very important distinction you made. Rupp did have a perceived power that most all of his coaching contemporaries at other schools could only dream about. That Rupp did not put it to better use on this issue is certainly something that he can be criticized for. (a charge that can be leveled at just about anyone BTW).

But my point is that just because Rupp didn't put it to better use [even though as I mentioned he did petition the UK administration in the late 50's to allow him to recruit black players (but was turned down), and Rupp did state a few times in the newspapers in the early 60s his desire to recruit black players (which resulted in him receiving numerous death threats) and Kentucky did petition the other SEC schools in the early 1960s for how they would accomodate a black player on their campus in preparation for UK integrating its athletic teams (which resulted in at best only lukewarm responses, many schools did not return the survey) among many other examples], I don't think it's entirely fair either to single Rupp out to the exclusion of everyone else who also could have done more, much more in fact.

For too long, Rupp has become the scapegoat for those, both in the North who too often participated in what can only be described as tokenism and were looking for someone identifiable they could claim superiority over, and in the South who too often held onto their own racist policies or chose to not take chances themselves, by citing Rupp and Kentucky as not having integrated teams.

Frankly, I think there's a lot of hypocrites out there, (and some who are so ignorant of their own history that they don't even realize it.) Rupp was the greatest coach in college basketball history at the time, and he happened to be ending his career at a time when significant changes were being made in college basketball and society in general. He wasn't blameless, but then neither does he deserve IMO much of the criticism that he's received through the years, most of it after his death.

To me, the common denominator is that he was a great coach who won a lot of games (the fact that he was also arrogant and strong-willed didn't help him in that regard.) The racial issue is brought up often by some in the media and by some rival fans, but I honestly don't think any of them would care one whit about the issue if Rupp had been a .500 coach. In other words, this issue has very little if anything to do with what Rupp did or did not do or think about integration, and everything to do with the fact that he was a tremendously successful coach who some people are looking to tear down, for whatever reason.


PS, regarding recruiting, one thing that is not well known is that Rupp was a terrible recruiter, by modern standards. He rarely left his office to recruit, and when he did, it more than likely was to give a speech at a high school team banquet (for which he was paid), to attend a high school all-star game or to talk to a recruits parents. His idea of a sales job was to hand a recruit an application to the university. Most recruiting was done by his assistants, and more times than not it was the players who came on their own to Lexington looking to receive a scholarship than the other way around. (for much of Rupp's career, Kentucky was the only team in the SEC that gave the full allottment of scholarships so it's not particularly surprising that players from the area flocked to Lexington)

An interesting illustration was when he recruited Wes Unseld in 1964, Unseld has said that he didn't think Rupp recruited him 'hard enough.' (a charge which unfortunately was heavily propagated throughout black communities) On the other hand, those who are familiar with Rupp have said that Rupp personally put more into Unseld's recruitment than any player he ever had up to that point.

Also, as far as the suggestion that Kentucky wasn't serious about recruiting a black player until after the Texas Western game, I don't agree. I'd appreciate if you read the following article about Butch Beard (published in 1965) and see if you still feel the same way. Note that there was also a Sports Illustrated article written by Frank Deford about Beard's recruitment around that time also, along with much more info. If you're interested in any of this, I can send you the information.

Butch Beard

Jon said...

Note: apparently my post was so long that some of it got cut off. Below is the 1st part of the post.


As far as I'm concerned, there are too many people who hold Rupp out as the scapegoat for society's and possibly their own failings when it came to integration in a smooth and timely manner during that era.

I don't know you or your history. Maybe you were on the forefront of championing equal rights etc. during the 1960's, or maybe you weren't. I'm sure there were plenty of areas, whether it was local to Memphis, the state of Tennessee, the region as a whole where racial barriers needed to be broken down, and still need to be broken down today. What specifically did you do to fight this ? What could you have done more of ?