Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shelby County Schools Unlikely To Pass Test On Community Leadership

Every one with Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools put on a happy face last week as they emerged from a meeting about an agreement for handling the students in the area to be annexed by Memphis, but the chances of their reaching agreement on a plan are about as good as peace in the Middle East.

That’s because in the end, the county district will undoubtedly once again put its political agenda ahead of children, and in so doing, it will make its cooperation subject to Shelby County Schools becoming a special district.

Over the years, the county district has been persistently tone deaf in these kinds of negotiations, and there’s no reason to expect that this time around, its motivations will be any less grounded in its single-minded self-interest.

The Cost Of Self-Interest

The community cost for the county’s recalcitrance has rarely been as clear. Its refusal to cooperate in an orderly transition of the students from Shelby County Schools to Memphis City Schools will cost taxpayers $12 million to expand some schools and bus children to other city schools.

That’s because there are roughly 2,500 students in the unincorporated area to be annexed into the City of Memphis, and if Shelby County Schools would educate the students while accommodations are made by the city district, it would remove $12 million in unnecessary costs.

Actually, the cost to taxpayers in Shelby County is more like $15.6 million, because of reverse ADA. In the past 15 years, county officials have been outspoken in their criticism of the state ADA (Average Daily Attendance) law on the grounds that it has resulted in a windfall to Memphis City Schools.

The ADA Law

Tennessee law requires for school funding to be equally and proportionally distributed. As a result, if Shelby County Schools wanted to build a $30 million high school and the county system has 30 percent of the total students in public classrooms in this community, Shelby County Government would have to produce enough money to give Memphis City Schools a proportionate amount for the 70 percent of the students in its system. In the end, that means that the $30 million for the county district requires Shelby County Government to produce a total of $100 million.

Less known is that it also works in the opposite direction. If Memphis City Schools wants $12 million for school construction, Shelby County Schools is required by law to get roughly $4 million.

Footnote: the cost for the county’s general lack of cooperation should also include $85,000, which is the fee for an out-of-town consultant whose job ultimately is to do little more than validate the facts and statistics of the professional staff of the joint Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development. The hiring of the consultant is required because of the county district’s refusal to accept OPD’s projections, because of its tendency to see conspiracies whenever its view of the world is not confirmed.

Rhetoric Over Reason

It’s clear that over the years, the debate about ADA has been more rhetoric than reason, because with much older schools (including about half a dozen 100 years old), Memphis City Schools has always had serious and pervasive needs to upgrade its antiquated facilities.

Unfortunately, no one has done a poorer job of articulating its position and its positives than Memphis City Schools, a perplexing problem for the city district that continues even today. As a result, taxpayers have been left with the opinion that the climbing Shelby County Government debt is caused by the city district, and as we’ve said before, all of this results in a decidedly myopic view of educational needs in this community and in the tail wagging the dog as the county district dominates public debate about public education.

It’s discouraging that Memphis City Schools can’t do better in the court of public opinion, especially considering the political opportunism that has characterized decisions of Shelby County Schools, particularly as voiced by its board chair David Pickler. While we, like many, have bemoaned the inappropriate involvement of the board members of Memphis City Schools in issues better left to Supt. Carol Johnson and her administrative team, it pales in comparison to the way that the county school board injects itself into all things educational – curriculum, pedagogy, operations, and more – and does it in keeping with narrow political, not to mention, racial, considerations.

Wanted: Jimmy Carter

After last week’s meeting, every one was as upbeat as parties leaving a United Nations gathering, engaging in the same kind of vague diplomacy-speak. But even the mediation skills of Jimmy Carter would be unlikely to produce ultimate agreement between them.

The ill will between the boards stems back to the vituperation that erupted last year when Pickler accused city board officials of reneging on an agreement to endorse a bill in the Tennessee Legislature making Shelby County Schools a special school district. The agreement seemed to only exist in the minds of the county district officials, but even The Commercial Appeal stated without attribution that county school officials broke their word. The fact is that if anyone at Shelby County Schools had been listening, they would have known that the special district is a non-starter for their city counterparts and as long as the county district makes decisions on racial factors, the city will never change its position.

Consolidated Districts

For the record, Tennessee has 135 school systems, and only 14 of them are special districts. As we’ve pointed out before, the trend is moving toward consolidation, and financial analyses show that these merged districts are less costly, contrary to the rhetoric of county board members. In fact, Shelby County is the only metro area in Tennessee that has not already consolidated its school districts, and with the potential of this kind of structure to end the conflict and reduce costs, it seems an opportune time to consider it.

Unfortunately, there are no advocates for putting all potential management structures on the table for consideration. When it was the county system needing money and help, county government was a reliable and outspoken defender of it. That’s why it’s curious this time around that county government is so quiet, because in the end, no one has more influence over Shelby County Schools that the government that funds its budget.

With some quiet diplomacy by county officials, there might yet be hope for an agreement that focuses on children rather than politics. For a change.

1 comment:

BraveCordovaDem said...

Not only is Shelby County not moving towards consolidation, some of the more rightwing members of the State Legislature are trying to make it permanent by making Shelby County Schools a Special School District.

This actually passed the State Senate last year with innner City legislators being duped into supporting it and even A C Wharton supporting it. It was halted only by a reluctant State House member. Newly elcted State Senator Paul Stanley will surely try for it again.

This has got to be one of the most insane proposals that ever been made for Memphis and Shelby County.