Suburban politicians, Chambers of Commerce and anti-consolidation firebrands are like the pyromaniac who starts a fire and then shows up later to say that we all need to work together to put it out. 

After years of pursuing special school district status for Shelby County Schools, and without a fleeting concern about Memphis City Schools, this group now calls on city school leaders to come to the table and find a compromise that benefits the county district. 

This time around, things went differently.  When the county district revived its pursuit of special school district status, they lit a fire that may end up giving them third-degree burns, because this time, Memphis City Schools said enough is enough. 

Shelby County Schools interest in district cooperation is strange, considering that in previous years, as Shelby County Schools demanded special school district approval, we can’t remember them showing any desire – much less sincerity – for a compromise to make sure Memphis City Schools wasn’t negatively affected.  

Burden of Proof: County Schools 

Everything has changed.  Today, they call passionately on Memphis City Schools to meet with them to find a compromise, but it’s a little like Mussolini calling on the Allies to compromise as the war for the fascist was going down the tubes.  It begs the question: why should Memphis City Schools come to any table until they’ve gotten a specific proposal from Shelby County Schools? 

The suburban Chambers of Commerce – without even a hint of satire – issued a press release: “As business leaders we understand the importance of communication and that calmer heads prevail when emotions run high. The Shelby County Chambers Alliance would like to urge the leadership of the Memphis City Schools and the Shelby County Schools to accept the joint offer made by Mayors A.C. Wharton and Mark Luttrell to help facilitate an amicable resolution to the issues facing both of our school systems over the coming weeks. It is our belief that the leadership our Mayors would bring to the table could bring another perspective and perhaps help us move past this impasse?” 

This interest in calmer heads prevailing during the days of high emotion is something new, we presume, because it was noticeably absent during the consolidation campaign.  What impasse are they trying to move past?  There’s no impasse, because Memphis City Schools has control.  If they truly want a resolution to the current controversy, why are they not just telling Shelby County Schools to stand down and end its pursuit for special school district status once and for all?  After all, it was the county district that set all this in motion?  

It’s amazing to see all this newfound interest in Memphis City Schools by suburban leaders who have shown nothing but disdain for it for years, and that has beaten up city schools to sell their towns to new business and to developers.  As a result, there’s no one who can believe that if Shelby County Schools had the upper hand, the suburban Chambers and anti-consolidation zealots would be showing any concern for the city district.  

Giving Up on Freezing 

Here’s the thing: unless Shelby County Schools is willing to abandon its brass ring – freezing of the county school boundaries – how is there to be any compromise?  Shelby County Schools Chairman David Pickler is pretty blunt that this is his ultimate objective and he’s even said he’ll negotiate pretty much anything to get it.

Lacking in all his talk about freezing the boundaries is one cogent reason given by Mr. Pickler for why it would be good for Memphis City Schools.  In light of decisions that the county board has made over the years, it’s up to the county district to prove its good faith and to advance a reason for the benefits of freezing the boundaries that isn’t based on racial factors that often loom large in its decisions. 

More to the point, the school boundaries are frozen already.  This happened when the Chapter 1101 growth plan agreements were negotiated and because the boundaries of Memphis City Schools and City of Memphis are co-terminus.  In other words, we already know exactly what the boundaries of the district will be.  That’s why Shelby County Schools is in effect asking for changes to annexation reserve agreements that were negotiated by leaders of every government in Shelby County. 

Caught in the crisis created by themselves, the suburban politicos already are shifting to their default positions – fear and fiction.   It’s like the consolidation campaign all over again as they use misinformation and cherry-picked research. 


At the top of the list is the fiction that somehow Memphis City Schools will lose its Gates Foundation funding and Race to the Top revenues if it surrenders its charter.  As usual, they offer no proof.  Meanwhile, they assume that educational funding will go to the lower Shelby County per pupil level than the higher Memphis City Schools, although there’s no way to predict this at this time.  

Last week, a “fact sheet” said that “every study that’s ever been done on consolidation…has shown that taxes will go up” and added that there are no economies of scale.  Simply put, that is wrong.   First, taxes alone is an incomplete picture, because studies in Tennessee have shown that the costs of consolidated school districts have increased at a lower rate than our two school districts.  In other words, in the long run, the tax rate may go up in the first few years as the districts combine but over time they level off and remain much lower than ours. 

In addition, numerous research has concluded that economies of scale is a benefit of consolidation. The “fact sheet” by consolidation opponents also states that research says that large urban systems need to be smaller.  Actually, research is mixed on the size of districts and on balance researchers say that size has not been shown to be relevant to improved performance.  

Then, the fact sheet said the University of Memphis report on the special school district has a “funding plan, which is never mentioned, that would keep the funding formula of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County the same.”   Actually, the U of M report looked at impact (not positing plans) that two alternative boundary lines would have on the revenues and expenditures of the schools systems with property tax alternatives under both boundaries, and the so-called plan is today’s funding arrangement. 


All of these suburban leaders calling for compromise are anxious for Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell to act as mediators for a negotiation, but it seems to us that at its essence this is the responsibility of Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners and the suburbanites want to use the mayors as vehicles to increase their influence in discussions with city board members.  

We hope the mayors will be wary, keeping in mind how many times Shelby County Schools officials have walked out of similar meetings of the minds in the past decade and how little good faith they have shown.  This time, we’re hoping Memphis City Schools keeps the heat up so that if there are negotiations, they produce substantive results rather than ending up as a stalling tactic by county schools.  

In the weeks ahead, Memphis City Schools’ has a new theme song, the Billy Joel hit: “We didn’t start the fire; no, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.”