The danger in being an opinionated member of a fact-finding task force is that sooner or later you do actually run the risk of coming face to face with the facts.
That seems to be the source of the palpable discomfort displayed by Shelby County Board of Education Chairman David Pickler – a member of a special task force analyzing school funding and governance – after hearing the positive reviews of Chattanooga’s consolidated school district given last week by Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jesse Register.
To compound Pickler’s consternation, Supt. Register was invited upon the recommendation of Pickler himself, who more and more gives new meaning to the phrase: “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind’s already made up.” He called the facts provided by the Hamilton County school official “disingenuous” and disappointing.
Increasingly, Pickler resembles someone who’s drunk his own Kool-Aid.
His comments were akin to the defense lawyer who swears in his own expert witness and then sets out to discredit him when he tells the absolute truth.
And the absolute truth is that the burden of proof about school consolidation should now shift to the county schools. That’s because our dual school systems – Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools – are the exception, not the rule, in Tennessee.
In fact, of the state’s major metropolitan areas, everyone but Memphis – Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Jackson – has a consolidated school system already. And despite all suggestions by local consolidation foes, each of the districts is doing just fine.
As for Pickler’s witness from Chattanooga, Supt. Register said consolidation ironed out the academic disparities between the city and county districts and produced tax equity for all taxpayers in the county.
In rebuttal, Pickler said Register, not the district, deserved credit for the good things that took place under consolidation, a reprise of that oft-repeated (if not delusional) Germantown axiom that if the principal of its high schools schools were moved to schools in the urban core, those schools would perform just as well as Germantown High School.
In fact, it is the chest-thumping tendencies of town mayors and county school board members that are most irritating to residents of Memphis. Shelby County school officials routinely lay claim to excellence through a simple equation – comparing their district’s test scores to Memphis City Schools. In truth, the real test should be in comparing how Shelby County schools perform when compared to districts with the same socio-economic conditions (Connecticut comes to mind). This test indicates that Shelby County is a good, not great, school system.
In last week’s meeting, Pickler pointedly noted that the enrollment in Hamilton County had stagnated or declined after consolidation. What he didn’t mention is that the county schools enrollment has already peaked, and several years ago at that.
Finally, Pickler argues that consolidation would increase taxes 34 cents inside Memphis and $1.20 outside Memphis. Of course, residents outside of Memphis should already be paying a fairer share of school costs, but as usual, he made no mention of tax equity, just trotting out the red meat, anti-tax rhetoric that comes out when anyone tries to have a reasonable discussion about consolidation.
Ironically, these are times when it seems like the Memphis City Schools under the leadership of Supt. Carol Johnson could give the county schools some good advice. After all, in the 2005 No Child Left Behind report, the county school district did not meet all federal benchmarks and did not meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) for elementary/middle schools.
Meanwhile, Memphis City School received all passing grades, and no other major system in the state did as well.
But at a time when Superintendent Carol Johnson should be getting a thank you letter for leading the turnaround of the city schools district, she was instead having her job threatened by school board member Deni Hirsch, who was insistent on reversing the suspension of a football player charged in connection with a sexual assault.
All in all, it points up the relevance to Memphis and Shelby County of the national debate that is just beginning about the dark continent of American governance – school boards.
In truth, the failure of American education in the past 15 years is the failure of school boards to establish a climate of change and to orchestrate coherent strategies for reforming schools. Rather than provide the strong, risk-taking leadership that schools needed, boards across the U.S. actually became just another level of administration, intent on micromanaging school district superintendents.
So, what does an effective board do? It keeps its eye on the big picture.
The superintendent is in charge of administration. Our part-time board members do our community their best service when they build civic capacity for sustained change. To do this, board members must spend their time being unswerving advocates for reform, setting the policies to make it happen, appointing a strong reform superintendent and letting her do her job.
Most of all, an effective school board understands that it takes much more than a village to educate a child. It takes a city. A good school board builds ties to all sectors of the community – parents, business leaders and community groups.
That’s why change is in the air. Cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami and San Diego have moved away from business as usual when it comes to their school boards. There are new models of governance being discussed and implemented. There are new roles for board members. Surely, this is one movement that Memphis should join, if not lead.
That said, there is no more demanding part-time job in this city than as school board member. When children are involved, no one is hesitant in picking up the phone and demanding help. When children are involved, all of us become just a little less logical and little more emotion. Often, the board’s help is appropriate and identifies problem policy areas. The hard test for board members is to keep citizens’ pleas from pulling them into micromanagement.
In the end, school board members must represent the best that Memphis has to offer and they must act with only the interests of students in mind. In the end, reform-minded superintendents change school districts. In the end, good boards enable the superintendents to do it.
The line between constituent services and micromanagement is a thin one, but it is critical that board members keep on their side of it.
Some things should transcend day-to-day political interests. The education of our children surely is at the top of that list.