Bernal Smith, the always thoughtful publisher of the Tri-State Defender recently wrote his reasons for voting for school consolidation:

Previously, I detailed the underlying facts of school consolidation and the MCS charter surrender. Subsequently, I broke down the fiscal implications and numbers driving the push for and challenge to special school districts, charter surrender and school unification.

Today, I summarize the issue based on the known facts and endorse the creation of a Shelby County Unified School District by a vote of yes on the referendum now before Memphis voters. Early voting began Wednesday and continues through March 3.  Election Day is March 8.

David versus Goliath

After much political posturing, many meetings and various votes by nearly every local and state governmental body of elected officials, the time has come for the PEOPLE, the voters of Memphis, to officially weigh in on the issue of school governance and educational improvement for the children of this community. The weight of this vote has become enormously more significant given the recent legislative actions of the Tennessee General Assembly – and the subsequent support of Gov. Bill Haslam – in an attempt to manipulate and control Memphis irrespective of the desires of the citizens of Memphis.

The use of the entire weight of the State of Tennessee by a Republican-dominated Nashville to push legislation (the Sen. Mark Norris bill, Senate Bill 25), which impacts only one county out of 95, is potentially unconstitutional and arguably abusive. It is painfully obvious that this Republican-heavy legislature – with the backing of newly elected Republican Gov. Haslam – is concerned only with blindly advancing an agenda without regard for the needs and interest of the State’s largest community of both democrats and African Americans.

To support legislation that allows manipulation of decisions by local voters to the favor of a vast minority of the community sets a dangerous precedent that jeopardizes every aspect of a real democracy in Tennessee.  In that the Tri-State Defender endorsed Haslam, it is my hope that his support of the Norris bill is no more than an early lapse in judgment and not reflective of his governance during the remainder of his tenure. It is certainly not reflective of the communications shared with us during our pre-election discussions.

Truth from fiction

Some in the community have claimed that the Memphis City Schools Board simply gave up on trying to improve education for the 105,000 students it serves by voting to relinquish its Charter in favor of the creation of a unified Shelby County school district.  It has been said the board rushed into this decision without information or understanding of the issues. The reality is most members of the current MCS board were well aware and long have been aware of the detrimental implications of special school districts in Shelby County to the funding of MCS and to the tax burden of Memphians.

This is evidenced by the joint commissioning of a 2008 study conducted by the University of Memphis to further understand the issue, along with regular state legislative briefings to the board identifying the consistent pursuit of special school districts by Shelby County Schools in past years. Given a turn in the political make-up of the General Assembly a majority of the board clearly understood that swift and certain action would need to be taken at some juncture. That juncture came on Dec. 20, 2010 with a vote to surrender the charter of MCS towards the creation of a new unified school district based upon existing state laws.

Given the laws on the books at that time, the move made by the MCS board would have given this community an opportunity to reinvent both the funding and delivery of public education in Shelby County, creating a new system with equitable one-source funding and representation based on the diverse make-up of the county. It would put in place for the first time a system that represents fairly the interest of all students and all taxpayers charged with funding the system.

The governance and delivery mechanism could be tweaked for maximum efficiency and effectiveness in delivery of the core service, which is high quality education for every student regardless of zip code, race or socioeconomic status. Essentially power would be put in the hands of the people to provide for our most precious investment – the enrichment and empowerment of our children to grow and learn.

Don’t believe the hype

Much has been made about the “A’s” that Shelby County Schools consistently make and the “F’s” and “D’s” that Memphis City Schools make. Well, a little peep behind the curtain reveals that the Great Wizard of Oz is indeed just a regular guy. That curtain is the State of Tennessee’s Department of Education Web site. (Link:

At that link one will find the State Report Card for every school system. Specifically, the scores for Shelby County Schools are made up of Math, 55, Reading/Language Arts, 55, Social Studies, 58 and Science. 56. In the same categories MCS’ scores are 40, 38, 38 and 35, certainly nothing to write home to mama about. The point in comparing the two is that on a 100-point scale, which is what both systems are graded on, a 55 and a 40 are still failing grades, at least on every 100-point scale I’ve ever seen. There is real work for both districts to do and a clear need for improvement for all students in Shelby County.

Furthermore, when you evaluate the 2010 Adequate Yearly Progress numbers, you find that both systems had the exact same percentage of African-American students performing at proficient or advanced levels: 18 percent in Math, 33 percent in Reading/Language Arts for elementary and middle school students, and  34 percent in Math and 53 percent in Reading/Language Arts for high school students. This indicates that both districts are similarly performing in educating African-American students. And the argument can be made that more African-American students are performing at higher levels at Memphis City Schools, which has about an 86 percent African-American student population. The primary point is that there is significant room for improvement in public education throughout Shelby County and particularly for African-American students that make up such a significant portion of the city and county.

Strange bedfellows

A number of African-American ministers and associated organizations have aligned their interests and the interests of their congregations with those of wealthy suburban Republicans.   (You should see the look on my face right now.) Yes, politics really do make for strange bedfellows. I understand the fear, power play, lack of understanding and the desire to understand that generally drives the suburban politicians and their constituents. However the African-American ministers presents more of a quagmire.

I would guess their posture is a bird in the hand, even one with the dreaded bird flu, is better than two in the proverbial bush. That bird would be MCS in its current state and that flu is MCS after the implementation and impact of special school districts in Shelby County and the burden of educating 105,000 students with more than $200 million less than current funding levels. Of even greater concern to them it would seem would be the increased tax burden on the members of their perspective congregations and the potential impact on tithes and offerings from those already heavily burdened families still attempting to recover from “the great recession.”

Ultimately, it seems the challenge has been a lack of information to a well-intentioned group of faith-based leaders followed by a subsequent unwillingness to change positions. Unwilling, even after the introduction of more information and the opportunity to weigh the actions of various bodies that have made it so painfully obvious who and what is and isn’t in the best interest of Memphis and the children of this community. I am sure Jesus said it best, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Final analysis

For many of the past several election cycles the voters of Memphis have been marginalized, trivialized and disenfranchised in many ways and on numerous levels. Despite these efforts it is my belief that nothing in a true democracy trumps the will of the people expressed and exercised through voting.

Now we have this opportunity to vote on the future of public education in our community.

A vote “NO” is a vote for the status quo, a vote to keep doing the same things the same way while expecting a different result, the very definition of insanity.

A vote “YES” is a vote for a better future, a vote for a more progressive Memphis and Shelby County and a vote for better education for all of this community’s children so that they may have a greater opportunity at a better life.

Vote “YES” on March 8!