Memphis Merger Proposal Hits Road Bump

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The fate of the Memphis, Tenn., school district remains up in the air following a move last month by the city’s school board to merge the 105,000-student system with neighboring Shelby County schools.

The Memphis school board voted 5-4 on Dec. 20 to surrender its charter to the 45,000-student Shelby County district, pending approval from city voters. With the school board’s action, the county election commission was required to schedule a vote within 60 days to allow city voters to decide whether the school system should continue to exist on its own, or be ceded to the county district.

But the latest twist in the quickly changing saga is that the vote may be delayed, and that political maneuvering in the Tennessee legislature may render the board’s action moot.

If approved, the combined district would be around the 17th largest in the country. But on the day the election commission was to schedule a vote on the proposed merger, the state coordinator of elections, Mark Goins, notified the commission that state law requires that the Memphis City Council approve the board’s resolution before a vote can go forward.

“Neither this office nor the election commission has the discretion to ignore this requirement,” Mr. Goins wrote in a letter to the county’s election commission.

The city council could move to support the school board’s actions, but that would take time; the next council meeting is scheduled for Jan. 18.

To add more confusion, the city council’s attorney countered Mr. Goins’ letter with his own legal opinion, saying that the interpretation was incorrect and a consolidation vote could move forward without city council input.

The school board’s move to surrender its charter is seen by Memphis officials as a way to pre-empt efforts by Shelby County to become a “special school district,” which would freeze the district’s boundaries and allow it to create its own taxing authority—a move city school officials see as potentially harmful for Memphis schools. The state legislature, which convenes this month with strengthened Republican majorities in both houses after the November elections, is considered to be friendly to the suburban school system’s desire to become a special school district. If that happened, it would be impossible for the Memphis and Shelby County districts to merge by way of a Memphis charter surrender because Shelby County’s boundaries would be fixed.

Projects Under Way

Both proponents and opponents of the proposed consolidation, however, point out that the timing is not ideal. The Memphis school system has received $65 million in federal Race to the Top funding through the state, and a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation intended to help the district reshape key elements of the teaching profession. Opponents of a consolidation vote say that there’s no orderly transition plan in place that could knit the districts together in a way least disruptive to students.

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“This is the most consequential decision in the 150-year history of Memphis city schools. We’ve got to get this right,” Kriner Cash, the superintendent of the Memphis schools, said in an interview.

A spokesman for the Gates Foundation said soon after the school board’s vote that the philanthropy was still committed to Memphis. But Mr. Cash cautioned that the Gates and Race to the Top projects are in a “just past embryonic” stage, and need committed and steady leadership.

The relationship between Shelby County and Memphis is unique among large cities in Tennessee. Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville are all consolidated with neighboring county school districts. In contrast, tax revenue is collected from Memphis and Shelby County residents and put into one education pot, which is distributed between the districts based on population. Because Memphis has more students, it gets more money.

But Shelby County has been aiming for some time to control its own borders and tax revenue from its residents. Martavius Jones, a Memphis school board member and a proponent of consolidation, said that the November election results are the reason why he felt Memphis voters needed to move quickly on the issue. City residents would face a tax increase of 11 percent to maintain the same level of per-pupil funding, and county residents would see their taxes drop by 15 percent if Shelby County became a special school district because the county spends less per pupil than the city school system, Mr. Jones said.

‘Sense of Urgency’

“We felt that would bring irreparable harm to Memphis city schools,” Mr. Jones said. Once Memphis started talking about charter surrender, county and city officials said they were willing to take the special district discussion off the table for three years. But that still wouldn’t stop state lawmakers from enabling Shelby County to freeze its boundaries and gain taxing authority, he said.

“We didn’t have the same sense of urgency before as we did after [the November elections],” he said, referring to Republican gains in the legislature and the governorship. Shelby County leans Republican, while the Democratic party is stronger among city residents.

David M. Pickler, the president of the Shelby County school board, has said that such a merger would mean chaos for both districts. “The city school board voted to walk away, to throw their keys literally on the table despite the agreement [to put special district discussions on hold for three years], and abdicate their responsibility as elected officials,” he said in a press conference last week.

This isn’t the first time Shelby County and Memphis have talked about consolidation. In November, voters were asked to decide on a ballot initiative that would merge the city and county governments, but leave the school systems separate. Among city voters, the initiative barely passed, 51 percent to 49 percent. Among county residents, it failed overwhelmingly, with 85 percent of county residents voting no. The measure ended up failing overall, the third time since the 1960s.

Mr. Cash said that there can be “good consolidation plans and good politics,” and that a discussion should have taken place years ago. “But when we’re in a situation where you hit me and I’m going to hit you back,” he said, “it exacerbates the tensions and widens the divide.”

Vol. 30, Issue 15

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