Memphis voters will go to the polls on Tuesday to decide if they want to cede control of the 105,000-student urban district to a much smaller neighboring suburban school system, a move that has caused political ripples throughout the state.
Unlike other school consolidations that have taken place across the country, and the state of Tennessee, this is not a friendly merger. The school board leader of Shelby County, the 47,000-student district that is the target of the consolidation proposal, has called the effort a “hostile surrender” that will lead to chaos for all students. Leaders in Memphis, however, say consolidating is the only way to ensure equitable school funding for city schools.
The Tennessee General Assembly has even stepped into the dispute, quickly passing a bill Feb. 11 that says if Memphis voters say yes to consolidation, merging the districts will happen no sooner than 2013. That’s assuming that dueling lawsuits don’t draw the process out even longer.
But judging by early voting turnout, the fireworks over the proposal haven’t yet sparked a groundswell from Memphis voters. As of last week, 7 percent of city voters had gone to the polls since early voting started on Feb. 16, making it possible that only a fraction of residents could vote to create a school district that would be among the 20 largest in the nation.
The vote is also an example of how national political trends can affect local school districts. Republicans gained an overwhelming majority of the statehouse last fall, part of a surge of Republican strength seen all over the country. Coming in December, a month after those elections, the Memphis school board’s 5-to-4 vote to turn over its charter was a political calculation linked directly to that shift in party strength, said Martavius Jones, a Memphis school board member.
The board was seeking a way to preempt 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. Board members feared the new Republican majority in the statehouse would be more friendly to the neighboring county’s long-simmering desire to become a separate taxing district.
“I’m surprised at the level those who are against this have gone, to try to change the rules in the middle of the game,” said Mr. Jones, a supporter of consolidation, referring to the recently-passed bill that would create a two-year planning process should the consolidation decision be approved.
In all other cases of consolidation in the state, the issues have remained local, Mr. Jones said.
If the merger is approved, Memphis would be the last major metropolitan district in the state to join forces with a neighboring district. Three other metropolitan areas in Tennessee—Nashville, Knoxville, Jackson and Chattanooga—have been consolidated for 10 years or more. In the case of Nashville, consolidation came decades ago, in 1962. In those merger situations, which were less contentious, the larger school district encompassed the smaller district.
But to Mr. Jones, “people are hiding behind the size and the magnitude [of the merger] to say it can’t get done.” He said that Memphis city administrators and teachers would still be on the job while a transition is made. “It has never been a thing where [Shelby County] would have had to take everything on by themselves,” he said.
Tensions have remained high among city school board members. Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., a Memphis city school board member who opposes consolidation, abruptly walked out of a special board meeting last Friday related to the makeup of a possible consolidation planning board. He did not answer questions from the news media there, other than to say “that’s it” when asked if he was resigning.
Mr. Whalum has referred to consolidation as “cultural suicide” in a post on his Twitter account. “A yes vote abandons our children. Single mothers are tired of their children being abandoned. Single mothers can defeat this referendum,” another post from Whalum said.
David Pickler, who has been chairman of the Shelby County school board for 12 years, has pushed for Shelby County to become a special school district, “to ensure that we could not have consolidation forced upon us,” he said. The county school system has filed a lawsuit claiming that Memphis students’ civil right to a public education is in danger because the county doesn’t have the capability of taking over the city school system without throwing both systems into disarray.
“We are two very different school systems, with two different philosophies on how to deliver education,” Mr. Pickler said. Shelby County has been able to maintain excellent education while Memphis has a “legacy of failure,” he said.
“If, in fact, there is a forced consolidation, at a time when districts are being asked to embrace higher standards, do more with less, then our focus, our energy and our resources will have to be devoted to the mechanics of putting together these very large school districts,” he said.
In Memphis and Shelby County, the county government collects money from city and county residents and redistributes it to the two school systems, based on enrollment. Memphis city schools receives more money, because it has more students.
However, if Shelby County became a special school district with its own taxing authority, county residents would be able to keep their money for the county schools.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Memphis were asked to study whether a separate Shelby County school district would cause financial harm to the district. Steve Redding, an assistant professor in the university’s graduate program in city and regional planning and the lead author of the report, said that his findings could support either side in this battle. If the district froze its boundaries but did not seek a change in taxing authority, Memphis schools would be financially unaffected. If it froze the boundaries and wanted to keep county money in the county, Memphis schools would lose money.
“Each school system has taken the alternative that supports what they want, and is broadcasting that,” Mr. Redding said. “There has really been little public discussion of the two alternatives.”
Race and class differences are also fueling some of the heated rhetoric in the community: Memphis schools are 85 percent black, and 87 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty. 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.
Based on state standards, 41 percent of Memphis schools are in good academic standing. In comparison, about 89 percent of Shelby County schools are in good academic standing. The Memphis school system has received $65 million in federal Race to the Top funding out of $500 million granted to 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.
“As long as the community is committed to the teacher effectiveness initiative–either Memphis city schools or a combination of Memphis and Shelby county schools–we’re committed to them,” said Chris Williams, a Gates Foundation spokesman.
Mr. Jones said he would hesitate to call the opposition to the merger based in race. “I would classify it as class more than race,” he said. Mr. Pickler, the consolidation opponent, said that “to throw the race card out there is intellectually lazy.”
But where the two officials do agree is that the consolidation has boiled down to money and power. “This is an attempt to protect the resources available to Memphis city schools,” Mr. Jones said.
Both supporters and opponents of the consolidation are hoping for more voter turnout come Tuesday.
“I would have thought that many more people would turn out,” Mr. Jones said. “I thought that voters would have been able to agree with one side or the other by now.”
The low turnout so far has been “incredibly unfortunate,” Mr. Pickler said. “This is the single most important civil rights issue that has hit the city in maybe half a century.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Memphis Voters to Weigh In on Merger Proposal