Pride Goeth (you know the rest)…

City, County or some mix of the two?

I write this from the perspective of not having children who have gone through a public school system. I’ve never had to make the decision of where to live to make sure anyone I was responsible for got a quality education. At my age, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have to. However, I do contribute to the tax base of both Memphis and Shelby County, so I am certain that I deserve an opinion on the current situation facing the school systems of both entities.

I spent my entire primary and secondary education in public schools (not Memphis). Most of the communities where I lived had decent school systems, even though there was a little white flight in my Ohio home town when busing finally rolled around. I’d always been willing to give public school systems the benefit of the doubt when I’d hear parents talk about not wanting their children in “those” schools. It’s easy to assume that it’s just the racism talking; typically, the worst performing schools are the ones chock-full of minority kids. But after all, if you care about your kids’ education, and have the option, why wouldn’t you want you kids in good schools, regardless of race (yours or the majority of kids in a particular school)?

Can This System Be Saved?

I know there’s a widespread feeling that the Memphis City Schools, on the whole, aren’t very good. In my case, I didn’t really lose my confidence in public schools until I lived here. It seems that the administration of the system has been bloated and unable to cope with the needs of the students it serves for years (fair or not, like many local problems, I blame Herenton). Does the overall underperformance of the Memphis schools have anything to do with race? Probably not. In any administrative hierarchy, you’re going to have knuckleheads, ego-driven boobs and clowns of every race. Is it the kids? Of course not. Given equal opportunities, children can excel. I went to decent public schools and my parents were very involved in encouraging me to do well – and I did.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Because of the economic situation that affects many of the residents of the city of Memphis, those affected parents lack the wherewithal to give their children necessary support to do well in school. They work too much, or not at all. They may lack sufficient education themselves to make a valuable contribution to their children’s education. They may also not have the sophistication to realize how important it is to be involved in the educational process. This is why it really doesn’t matter how much money poorly performing schools systems spend. Until the bigger problem is dealt with, dumping money into schools won’t do much. Parents of poorly performing students have to be brought up to the level of the parents who are terrified of having their kids forced into a school system that doesn’t seem very good.

Going It Alone?

Which brings us to where we are. The Shelby County School has discussed special school district status. That would allow it to set it boundaries, keeping the Memphis system at its current size, unable to grow, even it the City of Memphis were to annex additional parts of Shelby County – unless approved by county voters. Schools in those areas would stay county schools. The Shelby system would also become a taxing district, setting an education property tax rate. I personally think it’s a good idea for a school system to be responsible for raising its own money, rather than depend on cities and counties with other priorities. Some believe a Shelby County Schools tax district would keep the Memphis schools from drawing from the county tax base – forcing it to rely only on state and city money, which would cause some belt-tightening in city government.

To forestall that, a majority of members of the Memphis Board of Education has voted to surrender the district’s charter. If approved by city residents, the Memphis City Schools would cease to be as an independent entity and the county system would be obligated to take over operation of all city schools, in addition to county schools. That has certainly set some teeth a-chattering.

It’s almost funny. The failed city-county consolidation effort had as a selling point the promise that no effort would be made to every consolidate the schools. Now, almost by default, the only unconsolidated major school districts in Tennessee may have to merge. I’d almost worry about another spate of white flight. On the one hand, DeSoto and Tipton Counties would certainly welcome the addition to their tax bases, but with the housing market still on the weak side, how easy would it be for thousands of people to up and leave?

Like everything else in this town, this is quickly going to boil down to race. Not the race of the children involved, but of the adults trying to protect their power bases. If the county does take over running all the schools, all the people involved in running the city schools (mostly African-American) will find themselves with very little to do. I’m not worried about city superintendent Kriner Cash. He’s already noted that he’s retired from a couple of jobs, so he’ll be okay. But we know how dear political power is held around here, and I have the feeling that people who feel theirs is being threatened will raise the specter of “those” people (white in this case) making decisions about “our” children (black in this case).

And there’s the reverse of this.  We’re already seeing political leaders in the other cities in the county giving voice to the idea of starting their own municipal school systems to avoid being swallowed up in a system that would end up made up of mostly Memphis schools. Good luck with that idea. It’s way to expensive to start a school system from scratch, especially when you’d also need approval by the Tennessee Legislature. The Republican-dominated Legislature may be disposed to be on their side, but the money thing of starting numerous new districts is going to make it a lot harder to say “yes” to something like that.

Let’s go back to the title of this post, which borrows from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goeth before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall.” The biggest problem we’re going to see in this situation is the prideful stubbornness exhibited by the various political powers involved. A single system, even a large one, would be an advantage to kids on the low end of the socio-economic spectrum. They’d be in a system that would, at least in part, be geared toward serving better-performing students. That could help them rise to a higher level than they might reach otherwise. Anyway, if Shelby becomes a special district, Memphis would eventually lose too much tax base to be viable, and the state would end up forcing a merger. Better to get on the front end of a shotgun marriage – it might be easier to avoid the petty jealousies and power plays we’re bound to see. Right now, there’s way too much pridefulness. If we, as a community (city and county) don’t see past that, we will fall. And the children (all of them) will suffer.

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About Doug Johnson

I spent 25 years in the news business, working in print, radio and television. After a steady rise to the middle, I made the leap to the private sector, which chewed and then tried spitting me out after 2 years. I zigged (instead of zagging) into a position in television production.
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4 Responses to Pride Goeth (you know the rest)…

  1. Joe G! says:

    Help me with this one. Isn’t this a repeat of what happened in the early 90s? When the city schools first tried to surrender their charter, and the Shelby Countians got so upset, they tried to secede and form a new county, Neshoba. I think there’s different motivating factions, but it sounds like the same tactic: dissolving the charter to force a merger of city and county schools.

  2. Mom says:

    Good clear thinking; excellent presentation (as usual). This problem seem as old as time itself to me. I served on so many study committees, back in the dark ages in Ohio, that were trying to address similar types of problems. I’m sure the archives of many school boards, cities and counties are full of dusty studies on what to do with the schools. Of course the economic situation does throw a clinker into the whole mess doesn’t it?

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