Apparently, you have us confused with someone who gives a damn what you think.

That favorite quote by an old friend came immediately to mind yesterday as Shelby County School Board Superintendent née Chairman David Pickler had the gall to publicly and aggressively campaign for the Memphis City Schools Board to reverse the vote giving Memphians the opportunity to vote for a new approach to public education in our community.

Another friend today described the benefits of one system: “Its primary goal is to create a single vision for educating the students of all of Shelby County who comprise a wide range of demographic and/or income backgrounds in the most equitable and efficient manner.”

We think she said it well and hinted to us how refreshing it could be if when we talk about “our students,” we mean every student in every public classroom in all of Shelby County.  The fact that Mr. Pickler has become the antithesis of this mindset and commitment is a sad commentary on his willingness to put his own ambition ahead of the education of our students. 

More of the Same

Then again, Mr. Pickler’s performance yesterday with his latest rubber stamp administrator John Aitken – who had such potential to actually perform the duties of a superintendency long usurped by his board chair – was nothing short of comical.

In a complete lack of self-awareness, Mr. Pickler now seeks to cast himself as an adviser to city schools but he couldn’t help showing his underlying contempt for the board members by suggesting that a very public public relations offensive – which so far as been about as successful as the German invasion of Russia – would actually move any votes by the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners.

While they may be divided by their opinions about surrendering the city schools charter, the board members are united by an overall lack of trust in Mr. Pickler generally although he suggested that his “aggressive conversations with members of their board over the last two weeks” actually is having traction.  We’re hoping that members of the school board don’t take the misguided path toward rescinding the previous school board decision, but if they do, it won’t because of any lobbying from Mr. Pickler, and only if he suffers from delusions of grandeur can he think that’s the case.

The odds makers seem to be giving low odds for the 5-4 vote allowing Memphians to vote to be reversed, and in the meantime, it gets more and more interesting to watch Mr. Pickler’s machinations to have a voice in a crisis that he began. 

Getting It Right

In this regard, we especially admire Memphis City Schools Commissioner Betty Mallott.  She voted against surrendering the charter but on rescinding the decision, she nailed it perfectly.  “I’m presently inclined to do what good board members do and that is to support the decision of the board,” she said.  “Right now I’m inclined to say the Board has decided and we need to make this work for all the children we are responsible for.”

That’s the kind of insight and commitment that’s been so often missing on the county schools side of the ledger, as we were reminded yesterday as Mr. Pickler called consolidation of the two systems into one “a shotgun wedding.”  It’s ironic considering that he’s pointed his legislative shotgun at Memphis City Schools for years with no interest in discussing its needs or aspirations for the future.

We’re reminded of a friend who is an organizer for a Saul Alinsky-type organization that exemplified its namesake’s hardball community organizing approaches.  Participating on a panel at Rhodes College, he was asked why he acted the way he did and why couldn’t black folks simply be more patient, more open to negotiation, and more reasonable.

His answer, looking directly into the eyes of the questioner: “Who do you think we learned it from?  You.”

He Would Have Voted Against the 14th Amendment

So, now we come to Mr. Pickler, who calls on Memphis City Schools to demonstrate all the virtues and good will that he’s never shown them.  Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t suffer from amnesia, and as a result, his rhetoric and opinions may fool some of the people some of the time, but they don’t fool those of us who’ve had to contend with his self-indulgent politicizing over the years.

It’s laughable that he’s now got nothing left but to mimic Tea Party tactics where he tries to act like his civil rights are being violated.  Yesterday, he said that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause is being violated if suburban voters aren’t given equal weight in consolidation.  In other words, he wants suburban voters to once against violate the equal protection clause by giving them veto rights over the city’s right of self-determination.

And yet, Mr. Pickler couldn’t help himself.  He invoked the 14th Amendment while threatening to use the transition period to kill charter schools, end optional schools, and eliminate jobs. 

It’s all sound and fury signifying nothing. If voters approve consolidation, his days are numbered.  There will be a new countywide school board and if he’s elected to it, his ramblings will be merely a sideshow to real decision-making by a majority Memphis board.  Any notion that he can do anything that can’t be reversed is absurd, and more to the point, Shelby County Schools’ span of control will in the long run largely be inconsequential.

Calling It Like It Is

Already, both mayors are calling for all school reform programs in Memphis City Schools – from charter schools to Gates Foundation-funded programs to Race to the Top – to be protected and continued, and in this debate about the future, we expect both Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell to prove pivotal in bringing reason to the debate leading up to the referendum.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pickler and allies continue to claim that other Tennessee counties that have consolidated their dual systems have had problems, chiefly financial ones.  But here’s what the Chattanooga Free Press recently wrote about the action of Memphis City Schools (to read it all, click here):

“Given the ground Hamilton County and Knox County school systems have covered since similar merger referendums in 1994 and 1986, respectively, the Memphis school board has made the right call. A merger of the two systems may be hard initially, but in the end it will bind Memphis together and force progress to solve what has become an untenable and, ultimately, unsustainable fracture in the Memphis area…

“The two school systems are simply mirrors of the social classes they serve. The longer they stay that way, the more cemented the division will become.  Shelby County school officials apparently see the problem as one they had rather escape than resolve…Pickler recently had proposed a three-year truce for both sides to study alternatives together, but that offer was logically mistrusted…

One Community Moving Toward a Shared Future

“But the evidence here confirms that the merger has focused more effective attention on student performance in urban schools. Efforts to improve teaching standards, raise school test scores and graduation rates, and programs involving magnet schools and minority-to-majority transfers have improved achievement countywide and insured fairer focus on children and schools previously left behind.

“It’s the right course, as well, in the interest of fairness and Memphis’ future. A city so divided cannot achieve its full potential. As much as any city, Memphis needs a successful, unitary school system on which to build its future.”

That future, meanwhile, seems of little consequence to Mr. Pickler, but soon, here’s hoping that the rest of us can join hands to create a school district that fuels our economy and proves that we can control our own destiny.