School consolidation is an idea whose time has come.

It’s likely that Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell is the only person standing between what’s been called “the nuclear option” by Memphis City Schools and good faith negotiations with Shelby County Schools about its special school district aspirations.   We predict that he will prove Lincolnesque in more than just his height as he searches for reasonable common ground for both districts and refuses to countenance suburban cries for breaking Shelby County apart to form a new county.

In the end, it’s hard for us to ignore the obvious about school consolidation: It saves money, it instills equity in taxation, it increases accountability, and it removes any question of separate but equal facilities.  But most of all, it removes once and for all the corrosive debate  that rears its head regularly and feeds the “we versus they” politics that holds back our community.

Maybe, just maybe, we could have a school district in which we all have a stake, no matter wherever we live in Shelby County, and that when we say we are committed to “our” students’ futures, every student in our community is in that group.

Everyone But Us

There is no substantive reason that Memphis and Shelby County should not emulate every other major metro in Tennessee and combine its districts into one seamless structure.  As usual, race threads itself into this debate in ugly ways and leads to the underbelly of local politics, where people adept at using code words get to roll them out in force.

There are some who complain that consolidated school districts do not make any sense because the resultant district would have too many students.  Of course, these same people have shown no similar concern about Memphis students who are part of the 23rd largest district in the U.S.  A combined district would become the 17th largest district in the U.S. and would still be about 25,000 students from the top 10 largest districts and about 150,000 students from the top 5.  More to the point, there’s no reason that the new consolidated district should have one giant school district rather than multiple smaller ones.

There are some that complain that it is reckless to risk Shelby County School District’s superior record through a merger.  Of course, no one in educational research believes that the county district is superior.  On its best days, it is average, and as Superintendent Kriner Cash has rightly said: “Memphis City Schools isn’t as bad as people think and Shelby County Schools isn’t as good.”

It’s not Shelby County Schools that’s being watched by school districts around the country for the results of its leading edge reforms (now endorsed by the Gates Foundation).  It’s Memphis City Schools.  In fact, Shelby County Schools has resisted most attempts at the kind of innovations that could make it a top-flight school whose results compare to districts with similar socio-economic profiles.

Time for a Real Proposal

There are some who complain that a larger school district is simply too costly, but that’s not what happened in Nashville/Davidson County, Chattanooga/Hamilton County, Knoxville/Knox County, and Jackson/Madison County.

If Shelby County Schools has any hope of slowing down the movement for consolidation, it needs to make a cogent, well-reasoned public proposal  for a special school district that shows how the interests of Memphis and Shelby County Schools can be addressed.  With state government painted over in a bright shade of red, county school officials are giddily confident that their fellow travelers in the Capitol will deliver up a special school district without serious questions being answered.

Chief among them is why the current prohibition against special school districts should be lifted long enough for Shelby County Schools to sneak under the tent.   “Shelby County School Board may not become a special school district under existing statutory authority, regardless of whether a countywide binding resolution is held,” said the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office earlier this year.  “We have addressed this issue a number of times in previous opinion letters.”

As a result, existing Tennessee law has to be amended first.  Under the terms of the proposed amendment, Shelby County Schools could become a special school district without the consent of the stewards for its major funding source, Shelby County Board of Commissioners.  Instead, approval of a transition plan would be approved by the Shelby County School Board, followed by a nonbinding referendum for people outside Memphis at the next regular August election, and referral to the General Assembly to enact the special school district.

More Questions Than Answers

These provisions should be reason enough to question the motivation, not to mention the good faith, of the county school board.  Clearly, the entire process is the legislative equivalent of a thumb in the eye of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, and although some quote Shelby County Schools Board Chairman David Pickler as saying he isn’t pursuing taxing authority, there’s no reason to accept anything on faith because of the Machiavellian machinations demonstrated already.

As the definitive University of Memphis study has pointed out: “The creation of a special school district in Shelby County outside the City of Memphis would result in inequity between the two systems and/or inequity for residents inside and outside of Memphis…There is no scenario in the baseline year or in 2020 in which the venue available to MCS (Memphis City Schools) would cover expected MCS expenses without increasing the tax rates paid by city residents.  Conversely, SCSSD (Shelby County Schools Special District) would be able to cover its expenses while charting district residents a tax rate lower than what they are paying in every scenario.”

In other words, it’s not unreasonable to ask that Shelby County Schools release a clear proposal that shows conclusively how Memphis City Schools is not punished by the county’s special school district.  As part of it, Shelby County Schools should be asked to explain the governance and democratic representation issues that would be complicated by the county schools other favorite agenda item: freezing the boundaries of the current school district.

As we’ve written before, freezing the boundaries produces bad tax policy, bad accountability, confusing No Child Left Behind provisions and more.   For a couple of decades, freezing the county school boundaries has been held out as a magic answer to the flight of people (read: white people) out of Shelby County.  Because only about one-fourth of families have kids in public schools, this seems to be more of a talking point than a point of logic.

Time for Facts

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the current county school district boundaries are frozen. If so, the area just south of Germantown in Southeast Shelby County would remain as part of the Shelby County School district. That means that when the area is annexed by the City of Memphis, these students would remain in the county’s schools rather than becoming part of Memphis City Schools.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Since they are citizens of Memphis, is it fair for them to pay taxes for Memphis City Schools if they can’t attend them? As citizens of Memphis, would they have the right to vote for board members of Memphis City Schools even though their children don’t attend city schools? Under No Child Left Behind laws, students are given special rights, such as access to tutoring, transfers to higher performing schools and more. Would students living within the city limits of Memphis but attending Shelby County Schools have the right to take advantage of the broader services offered within the city school district?

In addition, Shelby County School officials need to answer the fiscal note that should be a red flag for legislators.  A couple of years ago, the fiscal note to the county district’s proposed amendment for the county special school district said that if the bill passed, revenues and expenditures would be shifted from county government to the special school district, and this would result in some unnecessary expense to taxpayers; however, the main warning was that “any new special school district would likely have a lower bond rating than for other local governments, resulting in higher interest rates and increased costs to the district in an amount that cannot reasonably be quantified.”

While questions about public education and taxing authority are serious enough to deserve detailed research, it’s equally important to weigh the issue in terms of government accountability, government efficiency and equity in tax policy.

Nixon to China

If nothing else, we hope that the county school district’s customary rhetorical flourishes are replaced by a new commitment to reason and a detailed proposal that answers everyone’s questions, including apparently the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County.  We are pleased that both mayors have shown leadership in this regard, and it’s our feeling that Mayor Luttrell in particular will be crucial to a reasonable outcome to this fractious debate.

There should be no question any more that members of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners are not dead serious about pre-empting the special school district by surrendering the charter of the city district and thereby consolidating schools here.  As a result, Mayor Luttrell is presented with a “Nixon to China” opportunity, because, like the former president, only he can take action without arousing fears of s sell-out by his political base.

Mayor Luttrell is presented with two board chairs who say they want to work together, and it falls chiefly on him to determine if they are sincere and if there is any common ground.  Previously, he has spoken in favor of single source funding (another hobgoblin in Mr. Pickler’s world) and that could be a key card to be played in this high-stakes game.

As expected, this controversy has triggered more calls for the non-Memphis part of Shelby County to be sheared off for a new county.  In the past, the county attorney’s office has noted that there are things that Shelby County Government can do to head it off; however, we’re hard-pressed to believe that the Tennessee Legislature would be interested in adding another county since it hasn’t taken any action to create or eliminate counties since 1919.

No Neshoba

More importantly, we don’t believe that Mayor Luttrell will have any interest in presiding over the break-up of Tennessee’s largest and most populous county.  State law prevents the establishment of a new county that is within 11 miles of the Courthouse, which gives rise to the prospects of Agricenter International being designated as the Courthouse and therefore leaving only Millington, Arlington, and Lakeland for a new county.

Despite the machinations that could be undertaken by Shelby County Government to prevent creation of a new county, it’s hard to see a groundswell of support to accomplish it.    More to the point, residents of the new county would have to pay “real” taxes and setting up a new government would give them the highest tax rate in Tennessee, and also, the pro rata share of the existing county debt would be transferred to the new county so it would begin on its first day with a bonded indebtedness of about $600 million.

In other words, it’s time to reduce the posturing and increase the “reasonable discussion” that Mayor Luttrell has called for.  If we were him, we’d start by reviewing the report by former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris’s special committee more than 20 years that developed a structure that had centralized administrative and operational department with multiple districts of about 35,000 students underneath it.   After all, there is consolidation and then there is consolidation as a springboard to innovation.

As for us, absent evidence of reasonable discussion and proven progress, the Memphis City School Boards should move ahead with plans to consolidate city and county school districts.