Memphis residents have voted for a merger between the 105,000-student city school system and the much smaller neighboring suburban district of Shelby County, but leaders of the two school systems say conflicting laws make it unclear how to proceed.
Sixty-seven percent of voters said “yes” to consolidating the two school districts into one 150,000-student system, which would become one of the 20 largest in the nation. But the turnout for the March 8 referendum represented only 17 percent of registered voters.
Residents of the part of Shelby County who send their children to the suburban district weren’t allowed to vote on the matter, so people both for and against the merger acknowledge that relationships need to be forged for the consolidation to succeed.
One controversy concerns whether a new joint school board will be formed immediately or whether two separate boards will operate during the transition period.
“There are lawsuits filed everywhere,” said John S. Aitken, the superintendent of Shelby County Schools. “We’ve filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for clarity.”
He said that his school district should keep the existing school board for 2½ years, the amount of time that a new state law says should be allotted for transition.Anticipating Memphis voters would vote to consolidate, the Shelby County school district filed a lawsuit in federal court on Feb. 28 that argued for keeping the existing board in place for the transition.
The Shelby County Commission, meanwhile, is acting on its authority in state law to immediately form a new joint school board. The commission has called for that board to have 18 members from Memphis, which lies within Shelby County, and seven from the surrounding county.
Before the Memphis school district gave up its charter, it had a nine-member board; the Shelby County school board had seven members.
‘Make Haste Slowly’
“There is some ambiguity and conflict with state law,” said Martavius Jones, a proponent of the consolidation and a Memphis school board member. He favors the county commission forming a new school board right away.
Meanwhile, Kriner Cash, the Memphis school superintendent, agrees with Mr. Aitken that the two systems should keep their existing school boards for the transition period.
“This is a time that we have to make haste slowly,” Mr. Cash said. “There has never been a consolidation effort in reverse like this, where a much larger school system will attempt to merge with a smaller school system.”
The state legislation establishing that transition period was signed Feb. 11. It calls for a transition commission to be created with 21 members, separate from any district school board.
The movement to push through a merger by referendum of Memphis voters began last year. Leaders in Shelby County had long wanted to get “special school district” status for the system, which would allow it to freeze its boundaries and gain taxing authority.
Currently, county and city taxpayers have their tax dollars pooled, then redistributed to each school system based on population. Memphis, as the larger district, gets 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. After the November 2010 elections, the state legislature became even more tilted toward the Republicans, who were thought to be amenable to lifting a statewideban on creating new special school districts.
So the Memphis consolidation vote was a move to pre-empt losing tax dollars from Shelby County residents.
The debate over the benefits or problems of consolidation has been emotionally charged, with some Memphis residents saying that the predominantly white and more-affluent county system didn’t want to take on the struggles of Memphis, which has a predominantly black student body and a high percentage of students who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.
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 to reshape key elements of the teaching profession.
Superintendent Cash says that it is unclear whether finances for Memphis city schools will improve with the merger.
In the meantime, he said, emotions are still running high.
“There’s a strong contingent in the suburbs who are vowing to fight the school merger. The healing has not begun, but it needs to, and I will be as helpful as I can.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Memphis Voters Approve Merger With Suburban District