Where are the statesmen and stateswomen?

At what point does personal political ambition become so overpowering that a person is willing to sacrifice the facts and put the community on the back burner?

There are plenty of comments on local media websites from people decrying Memphis politicians for playing to the crowd, for their willingness to traffic in divisiveness for their own benefit and for aiming for the basest emotions in their zeal to be elected or stay in office.  Overlooked in this finger-pointing are the same behaviors when they happen outside Memphis, but there, as much as anywhere in our community, the “it’s all about me” politics and fear-mongering as campaign strategy are tools of the trade.

We were reminded of this again this week in the way that Shelby County Schools Chairman David Pickler and his minions pursue special school district status to the detriment of the overall community good and the way that Shelby County Commission John Pellicciotti manages to mangle the facts about consolidation.  This type of “means justify the ends” approach to politics is so much of what’s wrong with politics in our entire community.


Sometimes, it seems that their kneejerk opposition to consolidation isn’t as powerful as politicians hoped, so they have to keep whipping up emotions when they could just as easily find out the facts if they got involved with the work of the Metro Charter Commission.  But, once they’ve staked their political future on this kind of fear-mongering, they have to stick with it, even when the facts run against them.

Remember when these folks said that the new charter would consolidate schools.  Well, it won’t, and there is likely to be language in the charter that only the elected school boards can ever do that.  Remember when they said it was all a power grab.  Well, the charter commission wants to give people in annexation reserve areas the right to vote on whether they should be annexed.  Remember when they said it was all about Memphis dominating the suburbs.  Well, the new charter will probably give almost every town its own representative for the first time since Baker v. Carr. Remember when they said the costs of services like libraries would be dumped on the small towns.  Well, the charter commission has done just the opposite.

But none of these facts affect people who leverage fear to get elected. As a result, Commissioner Pellicciotti offered up more untruths in yesterday’s email blast, writing, “Much of the tax burden will be spread out from Memphis residents to everyone in the County. Current reports indicate that 14 of 16 proposed divisions would be funded by general service area taxes.  This is exactly that kind of tax redistribution that we feared would result from consolidation.”

There’s only one problem: It’s a lie.  Not only will the tax burden not be spread out – nor can it really be under the current law – the Charter Commission hasn’t even begun deliberations on that issue yet.  Hopefully, a county commissioner would know that.

Knotted Up

Then he tied himself in a rhetorical knot in his excitement to somehow get health reform into his e-newsletter: “The Charter Commission strategy appears to be one of dividing the county areas into various segments and buying them off with little nuggets in much the same manner that Senators bought to support healthcare reform.  The latest offer is to give citizens of unincorporated areas the right to vote on being annexed by one of the suburban municipalities.  I support the right of self-determination for citizens, but am concerned about it being used as a ruse to get everyone into a bad deal.”

In other words, anything that doesn’t give him the consolidation horse to whip for votes has to be a ploy.  We wonder if he’s ever even met the 15 members of the Charter Commission whom he smears with his attack on their integrity.  Half are from outside Memphis – including the Millington Mayor who said at a recent Charter Commission meeting that he had no problem with the voters deciding whether they would be annexed — so these non-Memphians must be pawns in this grand conspiracy.

Simply put, the Charter Commission is doing what it’s supposed to do: It’s listening to the people, the people said they wanted the right to vote, the Charter Commission wants to put this into the Charter, and Mr. Pellicciotti attacks them for it.  In other words, it’s hard to imagine anything that the Commission could do that would suit him.

Here’s the truth: if the people in the county towns went to sleep tonight and woke up tomorrow and consolidation had taken place, they’d never know it unless someone told them.  But we can be sure one thing: Commissioner Pellicciotti would still be saying the sky is falling.

Nothing Special

We apologize for being hard on Commissioner Pellicciotti, but we had hoped for better out of him. We’re long past expecting anything but pandering from his major opponent, Chris Thomas.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools is almost giddy about the prospects for its legislation to open the door for it to become a special school district.  As usual, the county school board is motivated by their short-term gratification at the expense of the long-term best interests of the entire community, and as usual, there is a racial context to the board’s decisions and agenda that is nothing short of abhorrent.

The State of Tennessee halted the number of special districts at 14 in 1982.  Memphis City Schools is a hybrid of a special school district created in 1869.  Shelby County Schools believes that if it becomes a special district, its boundaries will be frozen as they are today.

In other words, no one will benefit more from this legislation than lawyers, because it’s hard to imagine how Shelby County Schools can in effect trump the private act for Memphis City Schools that calls for the school district boundaries to be the same as Memphis.  Someone should begin now to select the judge to hear that lawsuit.


According to the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee, the amendment to the legislation would authorize special school districts.  If approved, the amendment would be followed by a private act to create the special district for Shelby County Schools, to fix the permanent boundary and give it authority to impose a property tax, according to county lawyers.

County school officials said that they will put it up at referendum for the public to decide, and we’re always for the people getting to vote on the structure of their government.  However, every county taxpayer should get to vote on this issue, including those who happen to live in Memphis (or perhaps we can have a dual referenda like the one that is such a favorite of county politicos and it would have to pass inside Memphis and outside Memphis in separate votes).  In the end, despite lots of rhetoric about accountability, the county district is hoping for the autonomy that would remove it even the occasional uncomfortable question from county government.

Lost in this discussion is a report jointly commissioned by the city and county school districts in late 2007 about the impact of the special school district; however, when the draft conclusions were distributed, one thing was incontrovertible: There would be no upside to Memphis City Schools if the county district became a special school district and there would be considerable downside, not to mention operational nightmares, confusing responsibilities and a tax disparity that would give rise to a federal court hearing.

At that point, the plug was pulled on the report by Mr. Pickler, we are told.

Just as he did a few months ago when he nailed state government for its lack of commitment to The Med, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz said it perfectly when he wrote Shelby County legislators in opposition to the special school district legislation.  Methodically, he dealt with accountability, property taxes, school system growth, school system funding and Memphis City Schools vs. Memphis City Council, and debunks each justification for the special district.

It’s exactly that kind of logic and rational thinking that Shelby County Schools wants to avoid in the first place.