They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.

That’s Hosea 8:7 and it’s a verse familiar to the small group of African-American ministers who this week sang Kumbaya with leaders of a county school district who have repeatedly made racially-based decisions about its students’ future. That’s precisely how we ended up with segregated county schools like Southwind High School where the enrollment is 98.2% minority and 1.8% white or the three dozen white kids at Southwind Elementary, where the student body is 97% minority.

Whether the ministers understand it, Shelby County Schools Board Chairman David Pickler and his comrades have indeed reaped the whirlwind.  County school officials can continue to present one-sided powerpoint presentations on the evils of consolidation and dose out their misleading conclusions, but they’re focused on the wrong subject.

Act of Faith

This argument is no longer about consolidation, because that rests with the Monday vote of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners.  Rather, if the county board wants to have any influence over the potential consolidation of the city and county school systems, its members have to do something they’re unfamiliar with: acting in good faith.

Their normal political games – and the attendant fear and fiction – aren’t going to work this time around, because the burden of proof rests with them to offer up a proposal and prove good faith to end the current crisis.  Ultimately, if Mr. Pickler wants to avoid statues being erected to him as the “Father of School Consolidation,” he needs to develop a nuclear disarmament plan based on an air-tight agreement that Shelby County Schools once and for all abandons its schemes to become a special school district.

Anything less means nothing.  Ultimately, it means that Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners cannot afford to stand down from its promise to surrender their district’s charter and to produce de facto consolidation.  The only thing that could possibly dissuade them is an airtight, no-risk plan of action to protect the education of city students, and we’ve seen nothing even close to that so far.

The Trust Factor

To date, the city board members have sent a strong message about its seriousness, but they’ve largely been met with lots of political rhetoric and predictable calls from commentators for calm and discussion – and trust.  Unless someone can assure Memphis City Schools that there’s something besides talk at the end of this rainbow, they have little choice but to take this bold action.

It’s also difficult to imagine how substantive negotiations can begin if Mr. Pickler has already telegraphed his deal breakers: frozen boundaries.  And it’s clear from the county schools board meeting that there are still some hardliners when it comes to the special district itself.

Ministers can repeat their soundbites about the board needing to do what’s right for the children, but that’s exactly what the city board members are trying to do.  Some people act like it’s incumbent on Memphis City Schools to stand down and to talk compromise, because this is an issue that needs more research and consideration.  Commentators lament the lack of trust that exists between the two school districts and act as if more time will somehow solve the problem.

All of this ignores a simple, undeniable fact: Shelby County Schools has been pursuing a special school district for 10 years, and we cannot recall the same level of interest when the need was for the county district to compromise and to extend an olive branch to Memphis City Schools.


We’re always for substantive discussions, but if the past is the best predictor of the future, there’s little reason for optimism or for city board members to feel confident that there won’t be some games afoot once the present crisis has passed.  And with the feeling that city schools’ future is at risk, the commissioners have no reasonable options to consider or to pursue.

Meanwhile, the African-American Baptist ministers talk of a Memphis boycott and shopping in West Memphis.  It’s worth noting that half of the local option sales tax for purchases in Memphis go to city schools, so in the end, their boycott hurts no one more than the students for whom they profess fealty.

If there is a theme emerging from the people criticizing Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, it is one of situational logic.  While the ministers talked boycott, Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aiken says that he does not believe that bigger districts are not better districts, which calls into question why the Shelby County Schools is trying to freeze its boundaries to keep from getting smaller.  Of course, he also said consolidation of the two systems would lead to increased operating costs of at least $100 million, a specious assertion, but such is the nature of the county district’s response.

Line in the Sand

It’s now been almost a month since the world changed because Memphis City Schools drew a line in the sand, and in all that weeks, Shelby County Schools has not presented more details to validate its claims that it has a plan that would not harm Memphis City Schools, either in its funding or its pedagogy.

The trust issue hangs over this question like smog in Los Angeles.  It’s hard to create trust in the midst of a political tempest, and because of it, the calls for it ring hollow.  It seems to us that as long as we continue our tale of two communities and shout to each other over walls erected by government and schools, we’re destined to always live in a “we versus they,” “city versus county,” and “he said-she said” community in which suspicion reigns.

If there is a nuclear option, we’re for using it to blow up the distrust and get us all on the same side of the table once and for all.  This too is the intent of Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, and while it may not be pretty, it needs to be done.  We’re never going to trust each other until we share the same goals and objectives and understand that our future is mutually interdependent.

(School)house Divided

Today, we’re not even close, and if Shelby County Schools had its way with its special school district legislation, we would always be divided and divisive.  The county board now seems reluctantly to understand the gravity of the current problem, but it’s hard to get excited about their vote this week to put off their quest for special school district status for a few years.

To defuse this, they have to do more, like pulling the plug on the special school district permanently and understanding that in the future, they cannot use city schools or the city itself as their punching bag or the foil for their political pandering.  Their worst dream is likely to come true: school consolidation.  Because of it, for the first time, a district called Shelby County Schools can be in reality a countywide system.

It’s there in the Bible used by the Baptist ministers: “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”  That’s Mark 3:25.