After the citizens of Memphis, Tenn., voted in March 2011 to fold the city’s 103,000-student school district into the neighboring, 47,000-student Shelby County district, supporters said that a unified district would ensure that all students would benefit from a financially stable system.
But as a transition planning commission and a unified school board grind through the process of merging two systems—one urban, one suburban—and two school cultures by August 2013, unity is looking harder to reach.
On May 29, the six other municipalities in Shelby County, each one much smaller than Memphis, voted to move forward with the process of forming their own school districts after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, signed legislation earlier in the month enabling them to do so.
The creation of “municipal districts” to serve those towns is by no means a done deal. But if the towns manage to clear several legal and financial hurdles, including debates over how to draw new attendance zones for students and manage existing school buildings, those towns’ districts would collectively enroll about 25,000 students who otherwise would attend the unified district.
In addition to the potential loss of those students, the Tennessee Achievement District, a state-created entity, is taking over some of Memphis’ lowest-performing schools and either converting them to charter status or developing a joint state-local management process. Four Memphis schools are in the achievement district, with more expected to join, meaning those students would also not immediately be a part of a unified Shelby County school system.
While those changes could potentially create a fracture in the unified district, the management of the unified system is seeing its own stresses.
Trouble at the Top
The 23-member unified school board—made up of the former Memphis school board, the Shelby County school board, and local and state appointees—is planning to wade into a controversial issue later this month when it decides how to handle the contract of Memphis Superintendent Kriner Cash.
Mr. Cash’s contract expires in August of next year, the same month that the unified district is supposed to start operations. The contract requires that Mr. Cash be given six months’ notice if the school board chooses not to renew it.
In interviews, school board Chairman William E. Orgel has made it sound as if the board is ready to let the superintendent go.
“We want to be very respectful of Dr. Cash and ensure that as he seeks other positions, like he did in Charlotte, that we make sure he has a favorable exit,” Mr. Orgel told The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis in May. Mr. Cash was recently a candidate for superintendent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., but withdrew his name from consideration before that district’s board made its decision in April. Shelby County Superintendent John S. Aitken’s contract expires in 2015. Supporters of Mr. Cash say that the school board’s move makes Mr. Aitken the main candidate for the leadership of the unified district.
David A. Pickler, the former chairman of the Shelby County school board and a member of the unified board, said in an interview that the unified board’s meetings so far have been “exceedingly polite and pleasant"—but that the difficult issues are just now starting to come up for consideration.
“Now, we’re beginning to see some battle lines being drawn,” said Mr. Pickler, who did not support Memphis’ decision to surrender its charter as an independent district, and is backing the plans of the smaller towns in Shelby County to form their own school districts. He is also running again for a seat on the unified board.
Merging city and county school districts is not unusual in Tennessee. Nashville merged with Davidson County in 1962; Knoxville and Knox County did so in 1987; and Chattanooga and Hamilton County combined in 1997.
But Memphis’ vote last year to surrender its charter to Shelby County was the first time a system so large decided to disband and merge itself into the smaller, suburban system—and the move was against the wishes of many in the county schools.
Debate on Funding
Leaders in Shelby County had long wanted to get “special school district” status for their system, which would have allowed it to freeze its boundaries and gain taxing authority. Under the pre-unification finance system, county and city taxpayers had their tax dollars pooled, then redistributed to each school system based on student enrollment. Memphis, as the larger district, received more of the money.
Some Memphis school board members saw Shelby County’s desire for special school district status as a threat to the financial stability of Memphis schools, so the consolidation vote was a move to pre-empt the loss of tax dollars from Shelby County residents.
Race and class differences continue to be an undercurrent in some of the consolidation debates. Memphis schools are 85 percent black, and 87 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Shelby County schools are about 52 percent white and 38 percent black, with 10 percent belonging to other races. About 37 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
The board of the unified school district has not proposed boundary changes for any of the schools. But the municipalities outside Memphis that are seeking independence say they are looking for an opportunity to set the direction for schooling in their own communities. A larger district of 150,000 students will not be as responsive to their communities’ needs, they say.
“We are most concerned about the administration and the quality of our schools,” said Stan R. Joyner Jr., the mayor of Collierville, a Shelby County municipality of about 46,500 people. Some 8,000 residents are school-age children.
“They say that the government works best when it’s closest to the people,” Mr. Joyner said, “and we think we can operate our schools much more efficiently.”
The municipalities are relying on a consultant’s report that suggests they can retain control of the school buildings located in their communities, which is an issue under dispute. Martavius Jones, the former chairman of the Memphis school board and a member of the unified board, said those smaller towns “will have a fight on their hands.”
“They have an expectation they’d be getting those buildings for free,” he added, but the buildings were constructed in part with tax revenue from Memphis city residents.
Mr. Jones, who supported unification, is also against the move to consider Mr. Cash’s contract. He argues that a fully elected school board, not a board made up of several state and local appointees, should make the final decision.
The composition of the unified school board is expected to change after an Aug. 2 election of seven members.
If the vote on the Memphis superintendent were to go forward, it would mean that representatives of communities that have indicated they don’t want to be a part of the unified Shelby County district would have a say in the district’s leadership, Mr. Jones believes.
The final makeup of the unified district will look far different from what supporters of the merger may have pictured, Mr. Jones said, especially if the unified district is made up of Memphis students plus the fewer than 20,000 students who live in unincorporated areas of Shelby County.
Mr. Jones said he was still optimistic that the unified district could still provide a good education for its students. But, he added, “does the system now look the way it was envisioned? No.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2012 edition of Education Week as District Merger Plans Face Rough Sailing in Memphis Area