Memphis And Shelby County Schools Merger Prompts Battle Over Politics, Race And Money

Contentious Tenn. School Merger Prompts Battle Over Politics, Race And Money

Memphis city residents voted "yes" in a referendum held last week, sparking the latest round of controversy in a contentious school system battle involving race issues, poverty, taxes. The referendum initiates the consolidation of Memphis City Schools (MCS), a large urban district that largely serves African American and low-income students, into the Shelby County Schools (SCS), one whose students are largely white and middle class.

The issues surrounding this merger highlight rampant problems taking place in American public school systems. Education inequity is aggravated by the lack of resources brought on by larger budget cuts and contracting state and local economies. Meanwhile, the futures of Memphis City and Shelby County school systems hang in the balance as political entities continue to vie for control.

Under Tennessee law, school districts are under County jurisdiction. In the 1800s, MCS successfully petitioned to have "special school district status" and became its own school district. Though it remains as part of Shelby County, it is separate from Shelby County School District in regard to funding.

Under the current system, all Shelby County residents, including Memphians, pay taxes to the county. The County then distributes funds between the school systems based on the number students who attend. Memphis City then provides additional funding beyond this to its schools based on its special status.

The referendum was held after the Memphis County School Board voted last December to abandon its charter to stop SCS from being granted "special school district status," a designation that would permanently set boundaries, and allow them to gain financial independence from MCS, barring any future attempts at school system consolidation.

A report done by the University of Memphis in 2008 indicates the "special school district status" would remove much needed funds to MCS Schools, which would negatively impact the school system and Memphis residents. MCS reports that this would lead "to an unequal education for the city's poor and mostly minority students."

Students who attend Memphis City schools are 85 percent African American and 87 percent are considered "low-income," which starkly contrasts Shelby County schools, which primarily serves white, middle class, students. This has prompted concerns over unequal access to education, and proponents of unification have called on officials to consider these student's needs.

If SCS were granted independent tax authority, only residents served by Shelby County schools would be responsible for funding them. Memphis City would be left to fund its own schools, which could result in the need for a 25 percent increase in property taxes to compensate.

Adversely, if the merger becomes official, Shelby County will be exclusively responsible for funding both systems, as the $78 million dollars currently funded by Memphis property taxes, will no longer be allocated to Memphis schools.

If successful, the outcome of this merger could be used as a model to alleviate strains on other urban schools nationwide. If unsuccessful, it would potentially serve to showcase suburban retaliation against resource redistribution.

Proponents of the merger insist that unification with SCS, a school system with a proven track record of success, would be more cost effective and could help turn around failing Memphis schools. A University at Buffalo Regional Institute Policy Brief reports that "mergers will save money by eliminating duplicative administrative and operational costs, and can also broaden opportunities for students in poor districts by reducing income based disparities and expanding curricula."

SCS board officials, however, insist the merger would negatively affect their students and their communities, prompting Republican Sen. Mark Norris, to refer to the merger as a "hostile takeover."

They argue that the new costs associated with the merger would harm students on both sides, and the new, large, school system that would be created would be ill-equipped to handle student's needs.

Critics of Shelby County School Board believe their accusations stem from the desire to maintain power, however. If the merger becomes official, Shelby's seven-member all-white school board would need to give up a substantial amount of authority to incoming Memphians, who are primarily African American.

In a briefing compiled to educate voters and concerned residents on both sides, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy explains, "Under one-person, one-vote, since Memphis is three quarters of the population of the county, any fair school board representation plan would have school board members representing Memphis constituting at least a majority of the school board membership." As both sides continue to argue, the merger has now grown into a state issue. On February 20, only five days prior to the referendum, the Tennessee legislature pushed through the Norris/Todd Bill -- legislation that lifts the ban on special school districts at the end of three years and mandates that a planning commission must be formed to execute the merger. This would include the re-drawing of districts, re-assessing the budget, consolidating curriculum and other school procedures, and electing a new school board.

During a press conference following the vote, democrats voiced concerns over the degree the state was interfering in a local matter and accused the Republican majority of favoring County interests. Memphis representative Jeannie Richardson commented, "I don't know motives or intention, but it's obvious to see the effects. The way the commission is set up, such a high proportion of power goes to the county, which is primarily white."

Rep. Miller, as reported by the Memphis Flyer, also insists that the "House vote had occurred 'strictly along party lines' and expressed that the issue had turned into one, not of education, but of 'money and power and control.'"

Under the new legislation, the merger would not become effective until August 2013, giving SCS ample time to challenge it -- which they have already begun to do. Immediately following the MCS Board's resolution to surrender its Charter, SCS filed a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of their decision.

The futures of both Memphis City and Shelby County students remain unclear as politics continues to play a part. Though a solution remains to be found and both sides continue to be at an impasse, the issues highlighted by this merger emphasize the need for looking more closely at the urban-suburban division issues within America's public education system.

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