There’s an old Courthouse adage: It may be legal, but it still isn’t right.
It’s a sentiment shared by federal court observers – and some say by Judge Bernice Donald herself – in the wake of the appellate court ruling that removed Shelby County Schools from a 46-year-old desegregation order.
Judge Donald had rightfully stated her strong misgivings about the candor and motivations of the county school system’s all-white school board. The relevance of this in Shelby County Schools is profound, since the elected board, especially its chairman David Pickler, has a relationship with its superintendent not unlike Edgar Bergen’s relationship with Charlie McCarthy.
Persons close to the county schools board have for years sotto voce told about decision-making equations that are rife with racial overtones and driven by regular political homage to the town mayors in Shelby County.
No Time To Celebrate
In other words, even though the NAACP Legal Defense lawyer agrees that the system is a unitary district, it’s not the same as saying that it’s race neutral in its decisions. According to federal court sources, that distinction wasn’t lost on the local judge, who, in accordance with precedents and binding court rulings, has little choice now but to accept the ruling. But we hear that while she’s convinced by the higher court that it’s legal, she’s still not convinced that it’s doing what’s right.
In the Southern baroque world that is Shelby County Schools, they see all of this at the least as reason for celebration and as most as validation. It’s yet the latest indication of how out of touch are the seven white people governing a district with a climbing percentage of African-American students.
But we don’t want to be too hard on the Shelby County School Board. After all, despite about 60,000 African-Americans now living in Shelby County outside Memphis – a number that is trending higher – of the 48 elected officials who represent the suburbs – school board members, the three county commissioners, state legislators, and town mayors and boards of aldermen – all are white.
All of this is destined to change dramatically in the next decade, but in the interim, nobody seems as oblivious to the changing tide and the need for fair-handed decisions as Shelby County Schools. In its curious world, the school board genuflects to the town mayors although unlike Memphis, none of these cities appropriates any of its property taxes to the public education that they tout as a main reason that Memphians should leave the urban core.
Vehicle Of Sprawl
This misplaced loyalty is a foundational reason for the tense relationship that the county school district has with the county government that’s the major source of its funding. At the same time that it confers with the town mayors, the county school board generally thumbs its nose at Mayor A C Wharton and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, becoming indignant as more and more questions are asked about its financial stewardship and its political gamesmanship.
Here’s the thing: Shelby County Schools has been the vehicle for sprawl for 25 years and its fuel was its unholy alliance with the developers. After all, there was a time in the salad days of county development that of 15 school sites, the same developer picked them 12 times. If the county school district had consulted with the Office of Planning and Development instead of the development industry, it would have been confronted with statistics, demographic trends and building permit numbers that showed that it has routinely put its schools in the wrong places. In fact, they were put in the very places that fueled sprawl the most – and more egregiously, enriching the very developers who made school site selections.
Most of all, the county school district’s unilateral process means that decisions are never placed in a broader perspective. They are not dovetailed with public service demands, which means that county government has never been able to prepare financially and programmatically for the future, but, instead, has to react to forces set in motion by its own board of education.
The inevitability built into the system is startling, especially considering that decisions made by the Shelby County Board of Education are responsible for at least half of the county’s suffocating debt. The spectacle of the county school system making its decisions in isolation seems especially incredulous in hindsight, as the Wharton Administration tries to pay down the county’s $1.8 billion debt.
Separate But Equal Schools
Sadly, given the chance to influence a chance in the process with a joint decision for the massive southeastern county high schools, Memphis City Schools seemed to go along to get along. After intensive lobbying by developers and the same people in county government who also brought us the fiscally unwise Arlington High School (known as the white high school), the city board members unanimously voted to accept the southeast high school site (known as the black high school) picked by its county counterparts.
It’s too bad, because if there’s ever been a school site that so egregiously exemplifies the stranglehold that development interests have on the county board, it is the high school site at Hacks Cross Road and Shelby Drive.
In a sentence, it’s the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, it’s the wrong price and it’s for the wrong reasons.
It’s no wonder that some members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners have expressed misgivings about the official reasons given for new schools. Despite all the protestations by county school officials to the contrary, it’s hard to get around the feeling that the southeastern Shelby County site was picked to get the large number of African-American students out of Germantown schools.
Special Favors For Special People
Then, there remains the question of why the county school board was determined to buy a site 50 percent larger than the standard for the nation. Rather than buy only what they needed – about 40 acres – county schools officials wanted 60 acres and were willing to pay $84,000 an acre although other possible sites carried a price tag of $40,000 – $50,000 an acre. Most amazingly of all, the county school board added 10 acres to its original site recommendation, and paid the premium price although those acres sold for $20,000 an acre a year ago. (It meant a $640,000 windfall for the developer who owned the site.)
In the wake of the Judge Donald’s ruling two years ago that the county district still had not corrected its behavior, the district mounted a disinformation campaign, saying that 95 percent of the people in the southeast area are African-Americans, so of course the high schools would be overwhelming black.
It was spin at best and a lie at worst. In the world of county schools, southeast Shelby County mysteriously stops when it reached Hacks Cross Road, which formed the easternmost border for the attendance zone for the high school. What is clear that if the district had taken off its blinders, it could have located the new high school a couple of miles to the east, and voila, southeast Shelby County isn’t 95 percent African-American any more.
But there was no way that the county district was going to move the school east of Hacks Cross Road. If they had done that, they could move some white kids attending school in Collierville to the new high school. Shelby County school systems. And that was just beyond the realm of possibility for the district.