We suspect that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners isn't seriously going to hold up the county budget to get the attention of Shelby County Schools, but it was past time for the county legislators to send the message that the times have changed and the county board better change with them.
Although we are sometimes disturbed by some action of Memphis City Schools leaders, we need to keep it in perspective: At least they're better than their county counterparts.
There are no students in the county classrooms who are slower learners than its own school board. It would seem obvious to anyone with common sense that business as usual ended with the election of a majority Democratic board of commissioners, but then again, Shelby County Schools' officials have always had an unshakable sense of their own importance.
For years, they have largely ignored county officials, thinking confidently that there was nothing that they could do to cut school funding. At the same time, the county district officials have courted and romanced the mayors of the small towns even though their governments put no property tax money into their schools.
But Memphis City Council has proven that no one should take their funders for granted. While county mayors have grumbled for 25 years about the seeming arrogance of county school officials, they were powerless to do anything about it, because they shared a power base with school board members. County schools were good for votes, even as new schools fueled sprawl, broke the county bank and were sprang more from developer influence than the influence of good planning.
But this isn't your parent's board of commissioners, and there is already a simmering antipathy toward county school leaders, particularly toward board members who demonstrate political protocol skills and diplomacy that would make Jesse Helms proud.
The poster child for the district's style of management is the Southwind High School, the hulking warehouse for 2,000 students - predominately African-American and many of them moved out of Germantown schools – that has all the charm of a new state prison.
The $36 million bunker is built on land for which Shelby County Schools paid significantly too much (about 50 percent more than comparable land in the same general area), it's built at the wrong location, and it's the wrong size, Of course, in a way, there's no denying that Memphis City Schools is a co-conspirator in this bad decision, because former Superintendent Carol Johnson approved the school, despite her concern about the location, about the price being paid for the land and about the size (she preferred a school of about 800 students). She held a veto over the project because the high school will eventually become part of the city district, and the agreement on funding required city and county agreement.
Big Box Education
It was a missed opportunity for another reason. Simply put, Memphis City Schools builds better schools, both in their construction quality and in their design. More to the point, there does seem to be an ethos in the city district that schools really should be hubs for their neighborhoods and icons for their people. That's why city schools actually have entry lobbies and public art, because design does really matter.
Here's the thing about the new county schools. They are the educational equivalent of big box retail, and like the big boxes themselves, these schools have done nothing so much as feed sprawl and fuel our car-dependent society. For 30 years, Shelby County Schools has regularly built schools far from the center of communities, fueling sprawl, traffic and pollution.
And while Shelby County Government seemed willing to move heaven and earth to pay for these mega-schools, it was content to let urban schools deteriorate into places unfit for their use as centers of learning.
Nationally, between 1995 and 2004, about $253 billion was spent on public school construction and renovation, but the bulk of the funding went for new schools. And make no mistake about it, were it not for the much-maligned ADA (Average Daily Attendance) requirements of state law, that would surely have been the case here. Some public officials regularly wring their hands about the growing county debt, an increase caused by the ADA requirement that for every $1 given to county schools for construction, $3 must be given to city schools. Left unsaid is the fact that the needs of city schools were every bit as important and critical as new county schools.
You Get What You Pay For
The director of town planning for the New Urbanist architecture firm, Duany Plater-Zyberg & Co. could have been talking about Shelby County when he said: "Most school systems are building in new growth areas. They're remote and overcrowded, and kids can't walk to them. The mentality is about quantity versus quality."
We've expressed our concern in the past about political realities that force Memphis board members to focus on specific constituencies rather than on the overall vision of the district and to deliver the political spoils to the people who elect them. However, city concerns pale in comparison to the political overtones of everything at Shelby County Schools. It's an exaggerated, politically-charged environment, where the lines between administrators and the board aren't blurred. They've been obliterated.
Often, Shelby County Superintendent Bobby Webb seems more like a rubber stamp than the big-time superintendent that the board envisioned when it jacked up his salary $56,000. Unbelievably, at the same time that the County Board of Commissioners was stressing budgetary restraint and scaled-back budgets. Under the plan, Mr. Webb's salary would skyrocket from $175,284 5 to $231,750.
We can almost hear county school board leaders saying: "We're better than Memphis City Schools, and they're bringing this guy from Miami who'll make $260,000. Good old Bobby deserves to make that much. He's doing a great job. We've got most of those black kids out of Germantown. We've never given up on our Bible studies. We can do random drug testing on our athletes. We've kept out any outside innovation."
We might actually support a fat raise for Supt. Webb if Shelby County Schools can quit basing its success on how much better its academic performance is than Memphis City Schools. All this chest-thumbing conjures up memories of a former Germantown mayor who told a Leadership Memphis class years ago that if the principal of Germantown were moved to Northside High School, that city school's academic performance would be the same as the suburban school.
It's hard to even know how to begin in a conversation with someone this delusional, but for us, the best test of the county district's effectiveness is to compare its performance with districts whose students have similar socio-economic profiles. We believe that it would show that on its best day, Shelby County Schools does an average job.
Superintendent Webb defended sizable raises proposed for him, his staff and principals by saying that the county district runs the risk of losing them. We don't think he released any study or HR report showing that this is the case, but like many things connected with Shelby County Schools, we are expected to take it on faith (as long as it's Christian faith).
The district also pointed out that it's a big-time district, one of the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. (although the U.S. Department of Education's National Center of Education Statistics doesn't seem to agree).
But no matter. All of this isn't about any serious comparison of salaries. It's all about what a friend once called political bank walking. As she explained it, that's when the boys swimming at the creek all have to take off their suits and strut naked up and down the bank. It's all for show and for bragging rights, and bank walking seems like it's at the root of the decision about county district salaries.
These days, Shelby County Schools officials are just as intent as ever on getting special school district status, but they appear perplexed about how to do it now that the unreleased report by University of Memphis shows that there's nothing in it for Memphis City Schools. We bet county officials could kick themselves for asking to be part of the city district's study about the impact of the special school district.
It never made any sense for a variety of reasons – economics, racial politics, one man-one vote, taxation without representation, and more. Suffice it to say, now that the report has definitively discredited any justification for a special school district for Shelby County Schools, we need to put that issue to bed once and for all.
Getting Into The Real World
Meanwhile, on the subject of schools, the folks in DeSoto County are beginning to come to grips with the costs of uncontrolled growth built on the lure of low taxes. There, voters approved a $60 million bond issue for school construction, and they've got to know it's only the beginning. Already, consultants have set the eventual price tag at $165 million, and taxpayers in DeSoto County are still paying for $115 million in bonds for previous school construction.
That bedroom Mississippi county has long overpromised the joys of suburban living, and building on its dominant Reagan style politics, there seems to be the notion that you can have everything and never have to pay for it.
This won't be pretty.