It’s an immutable law of modern politics that no matter what else you do as an elected official, you have to keep your base happy. No matter what.
Sadly, in recent years, this inviolate belief has grown to obsession, spawning an epidemic of robotic talking points aimed at solidifying “the base,” regardless of whether they are backed up by facts or not.
On its worse days, it produces a pandering that undercuts confidence in the entire political system. On its best days, it is merely comical, as politicians of various stripes merely ignore the facts of the debate and repeat ad nauseum the same tired bullet points.
It’s as if many politicians have become prisoners of their base, ignoring any hint from the broader public that their rhetoric and their actions should at least have passing acquaintance. And most amazing of all, when politicians do this most masterfully, news reporters even pick up their rhetoric as if it is fact.
We thought of all this as we read recent coverage of the attempt to get Shelby County Schools some quick money – $3 million, to be precise.
Two paragraphs in The Commercial Appeal coverage caught our eye.
The first was one in which reporter Michael Erskine stated as a fact, without any attribution, the following: “County school leaders are in line to get funding for a new elementary school next fiscal year, which would provide much-needed capacity.”
The second: “‘The need is extremely apparent,’ said (Commissioner David) Lillard, who said the county system simply can’t keep up with the growing number of students.”
It’s amazing how many phrases, such as “much-needed capacity,” find their way into news articles, although they are essentially opinion. In this case, the reporter endorses the viewpoint of Shelby County Schools, but of course, doesn’t offer a scintilla of information to back up his statement.
This brings us to Commissioner Lillard’s comment. In proposing the “emergency” funding for county schools, he continued his “no matter what” support for Shelby County Schools. After all, he advocated the Arlington High Schools, county government’s latest Valentine to sprawl. It’s in the wrong place and won’t be needed for years, if ever. Later, he was cheerleader for the Southeast Shelby High School, which has the distinction of being at the fatal intersection where politics and logic collide with the inevitable fatality, logic. This high school is to be built at the worst possible location, based on worst possible justification and using the worst design capacities.
What makes this even more confounding is the fact that as a lawyer, Commissioner Lillard has the reputation for having the best nose for the facts of a business deal of any one in his profession. That’s why it’s so surprising to hear him make the argument that it is growth that demands that the county district gets more funding and more schools.
This argument is made although the website of Shelby County Schools puts its enrollment in the 45,000-student range, and the Memphis Tomorrow study of school funding – led by county schools’ officials – set enrollment in the range of 46,000 students. In other words, using its own numbers, Shelby County Schools acknowledges that its enrollment peaked in 1999 with 48,770 students, a fact pointed out in various independent studies about growth patterns in Shelby County.
And yet, county school officials are allowed to trot out their time-worn argument about overcrowding, as they have done most recently with their latest educational innovation, the proposal to open the so-called Schnucks’ School in an abandoned grocery store south of Germantown.
Ironically, areas characterized by sprawl and the derivative development it produces are represented by county commissioners who tend to vote against tax increases and argue for cuts in government expenses, while it is their district that is largely responsible for the county’s climbing debt. This is especially true any time the subject turns to county schools.
But Commissioner Lillard is not alone in being deaf to the truth and blind to the facts. That’s because the county school district’s core contention that its schools are overcrowded appears questionable.
In the end, it’s possible for any school district – including Memphis City Schools – to paint a picture of overcrowded schools. All it needs to do is to adjust its classroom capacities. For example, to produce overcrowded schools, Shelby County Schools calculates capacities at 15.5 students for each elementary school classroom; 18 students for each middle school classroom; and 20 students for each high school classroom.
Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools bases its capacities on 20 students per elementary classroom; 24 students per middle school classroom; and 28 students per high school classroom.
In other words, by adjusting the classroom capacity, a school district can essentially determine whether it’s overcrowded or not. In fact, Memphis City Schools could simply adopt the county district’s equation and then no schools would be closed under Superintendent Johnson’s Five-Year Comprehensive Plan.
What’s most disturbing is that so many of the positions of Shelby County Schools seem rooted in simply, old-fashioned manipulation – political, religious, financial and racial. And as is often the case when politicians serve a narrow political base so dutifully, it’s all the taxpayers who end up paying a price.