More and more, educational decisions in Memphis and Shelby County are the tail wagging the dog.
It’s a strange local phenomenon that it’s not the needs of the nation’s 18th largest school district – Memphis City Schools – that drive the debate on school funding and school site decisions. Instead, it’s the much smaller Shelby County Schools district that seems to get all the attention.
It’s more than a passing coincidence that the county schools district is the nexus between politicians and developers, and as a result, issues concerning county schools are characterized by bouts of hysteria mixed with an ever dependable sense of urgency, particularly when anyone suggests that more deliberative thought should be brought to bear on county schools’ decisions.
Even Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, who calls for more research and analysis into decisions such as the recent Southeast Shelby County high school, seems to get worn down in the process and gives in to what county schools want.
The recent rush to judgment on the Southeast Shelby County high school is a classic case in point.
First, the Shelby County Board of Education selects the most questionable high school site in recent history and does it without consultation with Memphis City Schools despite their pledge of cooperative decision-making on school sites that will be annexed into Memphis in the near future.
Conflict normally surfaces at this point, ushering in Mayor Wharton in his preferred role as facilitator. He routinely urges greater coordination and argues for more evaluation to validate the need and the location. That brings in the Office of Planning and Development – the city/county agency charged with planning but who is roundly ignored in school site decisions – and at Mayor Wharton’s direction, it launches a much-needed independent, exhaustive comparison of trends, school capacities and attendance zones that is regularly lacking in these discussions.
The entry of OPD is intended by Mayor Wharton to create a cooling off period, which generally happens except for the single-minded, venomous attacks by county school officials who resist any outside oversight of its decisions. About this time, the political dynamics usually swamp the process, and while the study is being completed, in truth, the political deal has already been struck. As a result, the OPD study quickly fades away. About now, Mayor Wharton abandons his own study and backs the county-selected school site, and his staff even lobbies the city school board to get them to approve it.
It’s a curious, common ritual, producing conflict, over-the-top rhetoric and behind-the-scenes politicking, and yet, in the end, little change, and local taxpayers are left with dubious projects like the Arlington High School and now the Southeast Shelby County high school.
Sadly, in the midst of this politically-charged atmosphere, the facts are swept away as an inconvenient distraction. That’s why the compelling conclusions of the OPD study presented to the city board of education was dispensed with in just seconds. It was politics, and no one wanted to be confused with the facts.
The study becomes a footnote, and so does its seminal conclusion, which goes uncommunicated to the taxpayers who would pay for the 2,000-student warehouse sought by Shelby County Schools: the overcrowding being used by the county school board to justify a new high school is precisely 79 students.
At the present rate of growth, it will take until 2012 to even justify a 1,200-student school, and if the county gets it way and builds the air hangar school it envisions, it will still be under capacity more than a decade from now.
Further examination of school board data indicates that the concern of African-American county commissioners is well-justified.
That’s because, despite all county board statements to the contrary, the new school will be populated primarily by black students now attending school within the city limits of Germantown.
In other words, other than to allow the relocation of these black students, there is essentially little need for the new school at this time.
All of this points up one of the strangest realities of school site deliberations. For decades, Memphis and Shelby County’s own planning agency hasn’t even reviewed proposals for construction or land acquisition. As a result, the decisions by the county school district is not made within the framework of adopted annexation policy or other public policies or procedures.
It is hard to imagine another major U.S. city that makes these decisions as cavalierly, and the vacuum here creates a process where decisions are made largely on the basis of politics, not planning.
But what is most astounding of all is that it is the smaller school district whose concerns and needs drive so many of these decisions for our community.
For example, every taxpayer now knows that the state-mandated ADA (Average Daily Attendance) is the cause of the burgeoning county debt. The shorthand version of ADA is that school funding must be proportional, so every dollar spend on the county system must be matched with three dollars for the city system, because after all, there are three times more students in that system. Coupled with this understanding of the ADA requirement is the sinister belief that it’s unfair because it requires funding to go to the city school district “whether they need it or not.”
Part of the problem here is of the city schools’ own making, because for decades, it has taken whatever the ADA requirement has provided to it. Long overdue is the need for the city school district to make its own public case to county government for its own capital needs. It would undoubtedly show that the funding that it has received as a result of the ADA law only scratches the surface of city schools’ need.
That only seems reasonable since so many city schools are more than 50 years old. In fact, according to the city schools website, the district is using three schools that have been teaching city students for more than 100 years. For example, it would be interesting for Memphis City Schools to tell the community what it would cost to just get all of its schools up-to-date technologically.
Rather than being content to stand at the cash register and get whatever funds are sent its way when the county schools’ capital needs are addressed, Memphis City Schools needs to make its own case for county funding. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ADA formula works both ways, and if city schools get capital funds for renovations and construction, Shelby County schools would also benefit, getting funds without even asking or making a case for the money.
It’s time to turn the local educational debate on its head. It’s past time for all of us to have a clearer picture of what Memphis City Schools needs to achieve its mission and Superintendent Carol Johnson’s vision.
In the future, Memphis City Schools will dominate the local educational landscape even more than it does today. According to the agreement reached in the wake of the Chapter 1101 legislation, city schools will ultimately provide schools for about 500 square miles of Shelby County. That means that without any projections of significant population growth for our community, the workforce that will determine if we our region can compete in the knowledge economy is being educated in city classrooms today.
In other words, it’s in our own enlightened self-interest to end the county-centric perspective to one in which we all commit to do whatever it takes as a community for Memphis City Schools to succeed.