Why are these people smiling?
While Memphis City Schools is developing a national reputation for innovative school reform, Shelby County Schools seemed mired in a business as usual approach to public education.
This means that in the near future, the county school system will once again try to stampede approval of another questionable new school proposal despite its political drawbacks and racial overtones.
It’s “Southeast Shelby County High School Redux,” set to begin in a couple of weeks. Look for the manufactured sense of urgency that always accompanies a county school proposal, the near hysterical demands for immediate action and the political machinations designed to paint Memphis City Schools into a corner.
Perhaps, this time around, some people will have had enough. While Memphis City Schools ultimately went along with its county counterpart’s single-minded attitude on the selection of the single worst high school location in this community, it was not without some bruised feelings and battered political sensibilities. That’s why the fractious debate about the high school location may in time look tame when compared to the controversy to come.
Once again, Shelby County Schools (whose board is pictured here) will propose a questionable location – a vacant Schnuck’s store – with connections to a developer whose name has a familiar ring to it – Hyneman.
Once again, Shelby County Schools will push the proposed school despite any real need for it at this time. Like the southeast Shelby County high school, the number of students needed to justify a new school will not occur for five to 10 years.
Once again, there is little reason for this new school at this time and even less reason for Shelby County Schools to be making these decisions. By the time increased enrollment justifies a new school, the area will have been annexed into the City of Memphis.
The Shelby County Schools’ Board has set a town hall meeting in early February to discuss the proposal for the Schnucks school, but it seems an exercise in window dressing. The board has already voted to lease the grocery store at Riverdale and Holmes for $339,130 a year. Unaddressed is the cost of renovating the grocery store into a school, but even without this piece of the financial puzzle, Shelby County Schools is determined to proceed.
So what is the impact of these schools and why is the county district so determined to open them? While we hope that the answer to both questions is not the same, it’s hard to see any motivation except one – to move African-American students out of Germantown schools.
School board members and Germantown elected officials have acknowledged as much in their planning meetings and in terms that are anything but politically correct. When the Schnucks School opens, it will be more than 90 per cent African-American, returning the percentage of black students in Germantown schools to a level that officials can accept.
Just look at the facts about the new high school. The severe overcrowding cited by school officials to justify the new school amounts to a grand total of 79 students. In fact, with the new high school, the capacity of Germantown High School will drop below 50 percent. It will be 2012 before the growth in enrollment would justify a 1,200-student high school, much less the 2,000 warehouse being built by Shelby County Schools.
The county’s persistence on these new schools speaks volumes about the peculiar relationship that has existed for decades between Shelby County Schools and the mayors of the small towns of Shelby County. Although none of the towns dedicate a percentage of their property tax rates to the public schools which they tout so proudly, the opinions of their mayors are given more clout over county school decisions than officials of Shelby County Government, which foots the bill for the schools in the towns.
When Shelby County Government reinvented itself in 1976, it was to convert the sleepy, rural government into an active, urban one. It was a culture shift that has never been completely successful, but remains a work in progress. The Shelby County Schools, meanwhile, never budged, stuck in time and in a rural world view that produces ideas like these two new southeast Shelby County schools.
Most disturbing of all, this insular thinking runs the risk of being the spark that ignites an ugly controversy with racial overtones. Despite the political tinder box that is local politics, the board seems hellbent on pushing through its schools, whatever the cost to the overall peace of our community.
The answer this time is the same as it was last time. Shelby County Schools should bow out, and give the decision over to Memphis City Schools. After all, southeast Shelby County should be annexed into Memphis within five years, so why not just allow the city school district to make these decisions on future schools?
As short-term tenants of the schools, it makes little sense for the county schools’ policies to guide these decisions. In addition to the impending annexation, there are at least three other reasons Memphis City Schools should make these decisions.
One, Memphis City Schools does not share Shelby County Schools’ penchant for warehousing students in oversized schools. Two, Memphis City Schools does in fact build better schools, not the minimum security prisons erected by the county system. Three, there’s Superintendent Carol Johnson, whose leadership and new thinking are our best educational assets.
In the end, the new county schools’ proposal shouldn’t be called the Schnucks School as much as it should be considered the Snuckered School.