U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald was wrong in her ruling about Shelby County Schools.

She criticized the county school district for not taking race into consideration when it created its school attendance zones.

The truth is: That’s exactly what Shelby County Schools did, and that’s why, on balance, her ruling last week was the right one.


Judge Donald, meting out the judicial equivalent of “half a loaf is better than none,” refused to dissolve the 44-year-old desegregation order for Shelby County Schools but approved this year’s attendance zones.

Typically, the county schools board members, particularly the master of the disingenuous justification, Chairman David Pickler, now seem as willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions as Paris Hilton.

In the face of a noticeably stern judicial rebuff, county school officials trotted out their favorite, old rhetorical warhorses. Achieving racial balance would mean busing students, breaking up neighborhood schools and costing the district extra money, they warned.

Heckuva Job, Brownie

Superintendent Bobby Webb, who essentially acts as lackey to the board’s micro-management, said: “It’s a heck of a dilemma for me.”

Well, too bad. If you don’t want someone to shoot you, you really shouldn’t hand him a loaded pistol.

The loaded pistol for the county schools – and poster child for its racially-conscious decisions – ended up being Southwind High School. That’s why if county school officials want to see who’s responsible for this dilemma, they need only to look in the mirror. All it really would have taken to avoid the current dilemma was to make smarter decisions about the location of new county schools.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

In the wake of the ruling, the county system also mounted one of its favorites – a disinformation campaign. Mr. Webb said that 95 percent of the people in the southeast area are African-Americans, suggesting that because of that fact the Southwind High School would of course be predominantly black.

To suggest that southeast Shelby County is 95 percent African-American is spin at best and a lie at worst. That’s because Mr. Webb’s statement is based conveniently on the county district’s own opinion of what constitutes southeast Shelby County.

In the world of county schools, southeast Shelby County mysteriously stops when it reached Hacks Cross Road, which forms the easternmost border for the attendance zone for Southwind High Schools. What the superintendent really is saying is: “When we count the African-American students, we’re only counting kids south of Lowrance and west of Hacks Cross. My gosh, it’s 95 percent African-American.”


What he doesn’t say is that if you take off your blinders and ignore race, the Shelby County School Board could have located the new high school a couple of miles to the east, and voila, southeast Shelby County isn’t 95 percent any more. In fact, the new county high school would probably be racially balanced enough to impress a federal judge.

But there was no way that the county district was going to move the school east of Hacks Cross Road. If they had done that, they could move some white kids attending school in Collierville to the new high school. And in spite of what some county school officials say, that more eastward location would still be in the Memphis annexation reserve area and therefore, it would meet the criteria of being a school developed jointly by Memphis and Shelby County school systems.

Incredibly enough, the news media continue to accept the county schools’ justifications with an undiscerning eye. As The Commercial Appeal reported without attribution yesterday: “With less than two weeks till the first day of school, some feared the district would have to go back to last year’s grossly overcrowded high schools, leaving the new Southwind High School unused.”

Journalism 101

Apparently, our daily paper relied on the county schools’ version of what’s “grossly overcrowded,” because on balance, the county system doesn’t really have a crisis of overcrowding. As we’ve said before, the county district uses a different formula for determining school capacity, and because of it, its capacity ratings tend to overstate crowding. If Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson used the same method of calculating capacities, no school in the city would have been recommended for closure last year.

But misleading calculations aside, the county system sidesteps the question of why they are willing to crowd all of these African-American students into Southwind High School and allow capacities of Germantown schools to drop to levels that suggest that parts of Germantown High School should be shut down.

While it might seem that Judge Donald’s ruling will accelerate the out-migration into neighboring counties, if the county district actually did what she suggests, there would be no schools that are “racially identifiable” as African-American schools (if that’s the sort of thing that motivates you to pack your moving crates in the first place).

When we hear Chairman Pickler say that “my personal opinion is that the ruling, if allowed to stand, would create grave damage to the community,” we’re tempted to say that in the interest of accuracy, The Commercial Appeal should print it like this: “create grave damage to the (white) community.” It’s another craven attempt by the county district to enflame the passions of white parents, and there certainly is nothing in the history of the district to suggest that the black community’s needs and interests ever factor into decisions like attendance zones.

Mapping It Out

You don’t need to be a federal judge to see it. All you need is a map and a magnifying glass. The Southwind High School attendance zone goes directly down Hacks Cross Road, walling off the largely African-American area west of the road. Meanwhile, the Germantown High School attendance zone meanders around like a drunk on Beale Street, seemingly picking up specific subdivisions and houses inhabited largely by white residents.

Looking at the attendance zones, it’s hard to imagine how Shelby County Schools officials can defend them with a straight face. They clearly are set up to keep black kids out of Germantown High School and to make sure white kids do.

As Judge Donald wisely concluded, the burden of proof is on the county district, and it simply failed. While her 62-page opinion sifted through her thinking, all that’s really needed is to consider the arrogance reflected on the attendance zone map.

Five More Years

As we have warned for more than a year, the county board’s decisions on Southwind High School were racially motivated from the beginning. While school officials can beat the drum and chant racial code words like busing and neighborhood schools, this time it will largely fall on deaf ears.

This time around, they’re not trying to intimidate county politicians into silence. They’re trying to pressure a federal judge, and in the end, it’s senseless, self-defeating behavior.

But then again, it’s that kind of behavior that got the board in this position in the first place. Rather than complain about Judge Donald’s decision, the board should take out a map of the district that shows where the students live and without regard to race, draw the attendance zone boundaries.

When you don’t pay attention to race, it’s pretty easy to come up with attendance zones that are more logical, and along the way, they’d be amazed at what they could come up – a district whose schools pass muster in a federal court. As a result of its recent decisions, the district now has five more years to prove that it can manage a district that treats all children fairly and equally.

This could have all been so much simpler.