For the Children: An Exercise in Trampling the Suburbs to Feed Big City Government

Education is often cited as one of the biggest factors in predicting a person’s future success. A strong work ethic, while often overlooked is also an important factor and deserves a mention. When I first moved to the Memphis area 13 years ago, I chose to live outside the city of Memphis so my kids could attend Shelby County Schools instead of Memphis City Schools. As my son finishes second grade, I am pleased with that decision. Unfortunately, as the city of Memphis has fallen upon hard times they have opted to withdraw support for Memphis City Schools and the school board abandoned their charter to become part of Shelby County Schools. The school systems will merge at the beginning of the upcoming school year.

The unification of these two districts will be challenging as the systems are very different. Memphis City Schools have over 100,000 students and is the largest district in the state of TN, while Shelby County Schools have less than 50,000. The city schools spend more than 2,000 per pupil than the county schools. Standardized testing results show that roughly 26% of city school students are proficient in reading and 23% are proficient in math. Results from testing of Shelby County schools show that 57% are proficient in reading and 49% are proficient in math. Ninety percent of students in the city schools are classified as economically disadvantaged, while 37% in the county schools meet that criteria.

While it has been portrayed as a “merger” that would “save” costs in administration, the reality of what this merger will mean to students in the county and their families is far different. Memphis City Schools have high administration costs. The former superintendent of city schools often traveled with a large security entourage and at least two administrators have been caught being regularly driven to and from work and around town by security personnel. The chief of security for Memphis city schools oversees 120 employees and makes 40% more than the police director for the city of Memphis who oversees 3000 employees. City schools have been criticized for the large number of assistant superintendents getting high salaries and at one time, there were more employees of the district working outside the classroom than inside the classroom. Even in the construction costs for new schools, the Memphis City schools spent significantly more per sq. foot than county schools.

It is doubtful that a combined school system will be able to support this level of excessive spending. In fact, the new unified school board requested an additional $145 million in their budget. This request was denied and the latest request is for an additional 65 million dollars in revenue. In order to get to the lower figure the unified school board cut staffing at many of the suburban (currently Shelby County) schools, which had already been spending less per pupil than the city school system. A property tax of 9.9% which is the most the county expects to be able to pass would only generate 45 million in revenue. The finances of the unification are a nightmare, but that is just part of the story.

Citizens living outside Memphis that send their kids to Shelby County Schools have tried to form their own municipal school districts in order to avoid being swallowed up by the much larger Memphis city schools. State laws passed in 1982 and 1998 prevent the creation of the special school districts, and new municipal school districts. A new state law was passed that specifically addressed the issues in Shelby county allowing for the creation of new school districts. Four municipalities in the county have voted overwhelmingly to form their own school system and fund it with an additional increase in sales tax. Yes, we voted for higher taxes. In my city 80% of the votes on this measure were in support. The county commission, which has supported the unified school district, was not satisfied with that result and sued the municipalities (yes our own government sued us) to prevent the formation of the new school districts and they won as the judge did not see the state law as being valid since it specifically applied to Shelby County.

The fight has not been limited to Courthouse and mediation rooms. County politicians are accusing supporters of municipal school systems of racism for opposing the unified district. It is true that the city schools have a higher proportion of non-white students, but the entire community is a mixed community. What I find most troublesome about this attack is that it sends the message to students in the city schools that people don’t want them in their schools because of their race. This will serve to further divide the community and it doesn’t actually reflect the feelings and the people that are behind the municipal school initiatives. I volunteered when we voted for the districts. Supporters were coming from all races and it appeared a variety of income levels. Additionally blaming the issue on race completely ignores the poor management of Memphis City schools that has made the district the worst performing in the state. Municipal school supporters are also concerned about the very large size of the district diminishing their voice in the education of their children.

As the march towards unification goes on, the tactics of that support unification have only gotten more outrageous. An outside group, Stand for Children, has poured in over $200,000 in money collected outside Shelby County to this effort. They are currently lobbying in the TN state house to prevent any new measures for municipal school districts. The new unified school board has already expressed a desire to scrub the name Shelby County Schools and have the district carry the Memphis as part of its name. While this is largely symbolic, it begs the question do these politicians really want to represent all of Shelby County? The latest and most disturbing move is that the county plans to add 6 members to the school board to be appointed by the same County Commission that blocked the formation of municipal school districts. These school board members will join 7 members elected county wide that are already serving on the board. This move in my view isn’t all that different than the court packing scheme by FDR during the Great Depression. Eventually, the appointed members will have to be re-elected, but that won’t be until 2014 after many of the key decisions on budget cuts for consolidation have been made. Essentially, the county commission that has blocked municipal schools will be able to name half the board members that will be making the decisions on how funding is allocated between the current Memphis City Schools and the current Shelby County Schools.

At every opportunity the county government has sought to block citizens outside Memphis from having a say in their child’s education. The court costs for this battle have exceeded 2 million dollars and there is no end in sight. When your own government is suing you with your own tax dollars there aren’t a lot of options. Our TN Representatives and Senators have introduced a new bill into the statehouse, SB1353 and TNHB 1288. This bill is designed to allow Shelby county to create new districts and address the concerns that the judge raised on the earlier bill applying to only Shelby County. Many of the arguments against municipal school districts is that they’d be smaller in size and thus, less efficient. In the case of Shelby County, the district would be one of the largest districts in the country with 150,000 students. In 2002, the 100 largest school districts had 45,000 or more students in it. The individual municipal school districts would be more average in size than the unified district. It would give parents a larger say in the education of their children and it would be more tailored to the needs of the community. As populations change, it would be beneficial for all citizens of Tennessee to have more options, should they be caught in a situation like we are in Shelby county where we are facing higher taxes, losing our teachers, support staff, our district name and our voice.