The old proverb, the more things change, the more they stay the same, surely holds true today when it comes to the municipal vs. suburban struggle to consolidate the city and county school systems, not to mention the race among suburban mayors to lead their people into their ‘own’ school systems.

That thought came to me recently as I was discarding old articles I had written for different publications years ago. I came across one that I barely remembered writing in April 1990, but there was my byline in the now-defunct Southpoint magazine, once an admirable regional effort.

The topic was familiar. The headline:  Rebellion in Memphis. The subhead: Will the Suburbs Secede?

It occurred to me that the subject was much the same two decades later. The names have changed, but the controversy remains the same.

Here’s the article from 22 years ago:

For most of the South, secession stopped being an issue when the Confederacy threw in the towel 125 years ago. But some folks in the Memphis suburbs are sounding the call once again.

The brouhaha was touched off this winter when a self-styled “unity” committee proposed combining the (mainly black) Memphis city schools with the (mainly white) Shelby County schools. Suburban politicians were enraged. Led by Germantown Mayor Charles Salvaggio, who proclaimed he was ready to “fight to the death,” they announced plans to secede and form their own county.

Preposterous, perhaps – but legal? Maybe. Never mind that Tennessee hasn’t created a new county since 1879. Six suburban modern-day secessionist mayors plotted and soon unfurled a map of their proposed county to be carved out of Shelby County territory.

To some, the idea made sense, in a peculiarly Memphis kind of way. After all, when it comes to government, Elvisland goes in for two of everything. There are already two mayors – one for the city, one for the county – as well as two road departments, two fire departments, and two school boards. Streamlining seemed to make good sense.

The citizens’ Unity group proposed that the two school systems merge; they said consolidation would equalize the tax burden, improve the quality of education in the area, and save money, too. The group also tried an end run around the county voters by proposing that the city’s elected school board approve a citywide referendum asking voters to dissolve the city school charter. If city voters agreed, the county’s appointed school board would be forced to run the city’s schools, creating a de facto merger without giving county voters any say in the matter.

When county residents got wind of the idea, many complained loud and long, arguing that school consolidation would fan racial tension, encourage white flight, and increase property taxes.

Memphis city leaders have kept a low profile on the issue, but Shelby County officials, led by County Mayor Bill Morris, seem rattled.

“I find the position that we are in presently to be sickening,’’ said Morris. No doubt the thought of having his country dissolve out from under him was more than a bit unnerving.

But legal obstacles could derail the secession idea. No one really knows how big Shelby County is, likely because of the Mississippi River’s natural tendency to play havoc with boundary lines. But, according to state law, a county has to be at least 775 square miles before a new county can be formed from it, with the new county leaving a minimum of 500 square miles in the old county.

Meanwhile, the word spread throughout Memphis and all corners of Shelby County that the new county needed a name. Responding to contests around town, citizens came up with a file full of names: Caucasia, said one. Wasps’ Nest, said another. Bubba, said a third.

But out of the turmoil a name arose – no one knows quite from where – Neshoba County, a name that has observers wondering why the secessionist mayors would pick the same name as the Mississippi county in which three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

Memphis city officials don’t seem too concerned about the secession threat, even though it would yank away a heavy portion of the city’s residential tax base.

And County Mayor Morris, after enduring several weeks of the fracas, named 62 people – including the six mayors who threatened to secede – to a task force designed to ward off future school consolidation battles. Not only has the task force calmed some tempers, at least temporarily, it also may insure that nothing will happen on the school consolidation issue. Who ever heard of 62 people agreeing on anything, much less an emotionally charged issue like this?

Meanwhile, what has the city school board done with the referendum proposal to dissolve the city schools’ charter? Like most public bodies caught smack in the middle of a debacle, the board voted to postpone its vote on whether to vote, at least until April – and maybe, until the cows come home.