Finally, the tail is not wagging the dog.

For the first time in recent history, Memphis City Schools’ capital funding needs are center stage with Shelby County Schools moved to a supporting role.

That’s as it should be, because for too long, the political debate and decisions on public education have centered on the needs of the county system, creating the common perception that the city schools are receiving windfalls as a result of the state ADA (Average Daily Attendance) law.

The record now stands corrected. Superintendent Carol Johnson’s five-year comprehensive plan – titled Achieving The Vision – proves in meticulous detail that the city school district has demands that deserve much more attention than its county counterparts.

In fact, its capital needs now have a price tag, and it comes to $488,142,477.

Or put another way, the ADA funding produced for Memphis City Schools because of the construction of new county schools is anything but a windfall. In fact, it has been totally inadequate in addressing the widespread renovation and maintenance needs of the U.S.’s 18th largest school system.

(To recap, the short explanation of ADA is that school funding must be fair and proportional, so every dollar spent on the county system must be matched with roughly three dollars for the city system, because there are three times more students in Memphis.)

The plan announced last week is a clear-eyed evaluation of Memphis City Schools’ 176 campuses and calls for:

• The closing of eight schools and for five to be monitored carefully for possible closure

• The construction of five new schools

• The building of two schools to replace existing schools that will be torn down

• The converting of three high schools and one elementary school into middle schools

• The elimination of the 338 portable classrooms being used throughout the district

• The improvements of all schools to make them Americans for Disabilities Act compliant

For the first time, every individual school has a detailed assessment of its problems and its needed repairs. In ranking schools with the Facility Index Condition, the industry standard for rating the condition of buildings, the report concludes that Memphis City Schools’ overall ranking is fair. However, there are 32 schools in the “worst” category. Coincidentally (or not), Memphis City Schools has 31 schools that are older than 60 years, and according to the report, 25 were built more than 75 years ago and four are more than 100 years old.

Much of the report is full of facts that contradict conventional wisdom about Memphis City Schools, none more directly than showing that the district is gaining students (while being diplomatic enough to refrain from pointing out that the county system’s enrollment peaked a few years ago).

In three planning zones (Frayser and Raleigh, East Memphis and Cordova, and Southeast and Balmoral) for Memphis City Schools, population and student enrollment are growing. In addition, the average capacity of all public schools in Memphis is 84 percent, but 56 schools have capacities of more than 90 percent. (According to the report, research shows that schools operate best with 85 percent.)

While the capital needs of Memphis City Schools sound daunting, it is nonetheless essential for city and county to answer them. That’s because there is a mountain of research that proves the direction connection between the physical conditions of a school and its students’ academic performance. According to the TACIR (Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations), students in schools with good physical surroundings score five to 17 points higher on standardized tests than students in substandard schools.

Citizens of this community have been paying taxes for schools since 1852, and now more than ever, it’s a simple equation: pay now or pay later. Now, it’s an investment in better city schools and improved student grades. Later, it costs even more in the form of more law enforcement, more poverty and costly social problems.

No one makes the case for this investment better than Dr. Johnson. As superintendent, she has made impressive strides in her short tenure, but nothing she has done is more important than her success in focusing the discussion about public education on the school system that matters most to our future – Memphis City Schools.