Update: The bill described in this post did not reach the Senate floor today and it appears to have been put on hold as long as “productive negotiations happen,” according to State Rep. Mark White.  In other words, he’s still cocked the pistol aimed at Shelby County Schools and is poised to interfere in what should be a local issue. 

Thumbnail: Germantown runs to the State Legislature to force Shelby County Schools to sell its three schools in the suburban city with a gun to its head. Germantown doesn’t have a clear need for the schools although the county school district does, but that’s of little concern to Germantown politicians.


Germantown politicians have conspired to take three schools operated by Shelby County Schools in Germantown and force them to be transferred to Germantown Municipal Schools whether that districts needs them or not.

As a result, there is a bill pending in the Tennessee Legislature that will put a gun to the head of Shelby County Schools and force them to turn over its high school, middle school, and elementary school to the Germantown district. 

A bill supported by Senator Brian Kelsey and Rep. Mark White failed 5-4 in committee, but the senator, always given to legislative games playing, added it as an amendment to an unrelated bill, thumbing his nose at the Legislature’s committee system.  It passed 6-3 but there is no corresponding bill in the State House so that matter is pending.

It was typical of Mr. Kelsey, whose ideological posturing often shows a disdain for anything seen as Memphis-related and whose political ambitions know no bounds.  It was less typical of Mr. White who generally is more circumspect, but within the context of the Tennessee Legislature, the bar is awfully low. But driven on by Germantown officials, including Mayor Mike Palazzolo, rather than negotiate in good faith with Shelby County Schools, the legislators took a nuclear approach to an issue best left to the local parties. 

But that is not the way with the Republican politicians, particularly when led by Mr. Kelsey.  They would rather interfere and interject themselves into all kinds of local issues in order to have their way and reward their political buddies. 

Stealing Schools

It seems not clear that there is any need by Germantown Municipal Schools for the schools nor is it clear where the students in the Shelby County schools are supposed to be educated since other schools are overcrowded. 

Years ago, Germantown turned down an offer to keep the schools in its district by educating the children in them.  Its last offer to buy the schools was $25 million although the cost for Shelby County Schools to replace them would be at least three times that amount.

But this wasn’t ever about the needs of students or even educational planning.  It is just a ham-handed political maneuver for Germantown officials to get their way.    Sen. Raumesh Akbari said that if the schools were taken from Shelby County Schools by force, “the theft started in the Tennessee Senate.”

Mr. Palazzolo said the legislation was just a way to get Shelby County Schools to the negotiating table, but that’s just a dodge.  The best way to get Shelby County Schools to the table is to offer a good faith offer for the schools than put a target on its back to get this deal done in 12 months.

Mr. Palazzolo told the Legislature that Germantown expects 750 to 1,000 new residential builds for the city.  He failed to mention how many are expected to be families with school age children.  After all, Germantown has the oldest average age of all the cities in Shelby County and is a magnet for senior citizen assisted living centers.

He also offered the vague suggestion that if Germantown had control of the schools, it could partner with a higher education institution, whatever that means, and we’re hard-pressed where the municipal district has executed this great idea at the existing schools in the town’s district.

Lame Justifications

About the best that Senator Kelsey could come up with to justify the bill on Capitol Hill was that there shouldn’t be a Germantown High School, Germantown Middle School, and Germantown Elementary School named for the city when its own district isn’t running them.    

There’s little reason to argue with him about it when the answer is so simple: how about just changing the names of the schools?

This issue has been pending since the Germantown Municipal School district was created about nine years ago without an agreement in place to transfer the three schools. Such was the rush to get out of the countywide consolidated district and away from students in Memphis schools.

It’s also worth remembering that before the Germantown district, all capital and operating costs for schools in the town were paid by Shelby County Government with 70% of the revenues coming from Memphis taxpayers.  In those days, Memphis taxpayers were also funding schools within its own border unlike Germantown, which did contribute any property taxes to schools. 

Today, there are 3,400 students in the three Shelby County Schools in Germantown, and more than 70% of them are African American.  It’s hard to discount the racial component isn’t part of this entire issue. 

It wasn’t too long ago that the schools were in the old Shelby County Schools district – which operated all schools outside Memphis – and Germantown officials at the time worked with the district to gerrymander the attendance zone to keep the number of Black students from increasing and as a result, their percentage was lower than 30%.

Roots of the Problem

The following post from August 2, 2007, is an indication of the way that attendance zones were manipulated by the old Shelby County Schools district.

U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald was wrong in her ruling about Shelby County Schools.

She criticized the county school district for not taking race into consideration when it created its school attendance zones.

The truth is: That’s exactly what Shelby County Schools did, and that’s why, on balance, her ruling last week was the right one.

Judge Donald, meting out the judicial equivalent of “half a loaf is better than none,” refused to dissolve the 44-year-old desegregation order for Shelby County Schools but approved this year’s attendance zones.

Typically, the county schools board members, particularly the master of the disingenuous justification, Chairman David Pickler, now seem as willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions as Paris Hilton.

In the face of a noticeably stern judicial rebuff, county school officials trotted out their favorite, old rhetorical warhorses. Achieving racial balance would mean busing students, breaking up neighborhood schools and costing the district extra money, they warned.

Heckuva Job, Brownie

Superintendent Bobby Webb, who essentially acts as lackey to the board’s micro-management, said: “It’s a heck of a dilemma for me.”

Well, too bad. If you don’t want someone to shoot you, you really shouldn’t hand him a loaded pistol.

The loaded pistol for the county schools – and poster child for its racially-conscious decisions – ended up being Southwind High School. That’s why if county school officials want to see who’s responsible for this dilemma, they need only to look in the mirror. All it really would have taken to avoid the current dilemma was to make smarter decisions about the location of new county schools.

In the wake of the ruling, the county system also mounted one of its favorites – a disinformation campaign. Mr. Webb said that 95 percent of the people in the southeast area are African-Americans, suggesting that because of that fact the Southwind High School would of course be predominantly black.

To suggest that southeast Shelby County is 95 percent African-American is spin at best and a lie at worst. That’s because Mr. Webb’s statement is based conveniently on the county district’s own opinion of what constitutes southeast Shelby County.

In the world of county schools, southeast Shelby County mysteriously stops when it reached Hacks Cross Road, which forms the easternmost border for the attendance zone for Southwind High Schools. What the superintendent really is saying is: “When we count the African-American students, we’re only counting kids south of Lowrance and west of Hacks Cross. My gosh, it’s 95 percent African-American.

What he doesn’t say is that if you take off your blinders and ignore race, the Shelby County School Board could have located the new high school a couple of miles to the east, and voila, southeast Shelby County isn’t 95 percent any more. In fact, the new county high school would probably be racially balanced enough to impress a federal judge.

But there was no way that the county district was going to move the school east of Hacks Cross Road. If they had done that, they could move some white kids attending school in Collierville to the new high school. And in spite of what some county school officials say, that more eastward location would still be in the Memphis annexation reserve area and therefore, it would meet the criteria of being a school developed jointly by Memphis and Shelby County school systems.

Journalism 101

Incredibly enough, the news media continue to accept the county schools’ justifications with an undiscerning eye. As The Commercial Appeal reported without attribution yesterday: “With less than two weeks till the first day of school, some feared the district would have to go back to last year’s grossly overcrowded high schools, leaving the new Southwind High School unused.”

Apparently, our daily paper relied on the county schools’ version of what’s “grossly overcrowded,” because on balance, the county system doesn’t really have a crisis of overcrowding. As we’ve said before, the county district uses a different formula for determining school capacity, and because of it, its capacity ratings tend to overstate crowding. If Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson used the same method of calculating capacities, no school in the city would have been recommended for closure last year.

But misleading calculations aside, the county system sidesteps the question of why they are willing to crowd all of these African-American students into Southwind High School and allow capacities of Germantown schools to drop to levels that suggest that parts of Germantown High School should be shut down.

While it might seem that Judge Donald’s ruling will accelerate the out-migration into neighboring counties, if the county district actually did what she suggests, there would be no schools that are “racially identifiable” as African-American schools (if that’s the sort of thing that motivates you to pack your moving crates in the first place).

When we hear Chairman Pickler say that “my personal opinion is that the ruling, if allowed to stand, would create grave damage to the community,” we’re tempted to say that in the interest of accuracy, The Commercial Appeal should print it like this: “create grave damage to the (white) community.” It’s another craven attempt by the county district to enflame the passions of white parents, and there certainly is nothing in the history of the district to suggest that the black community’s needs and interests ever factor into decisions like attendance zones.

You don’t need to be a federal judge to see it. All you need is a map and a magnifying glass. The Southwind High School attendance zone goes directly down Hacks Cross Road, walling off the largely African-American area west of the road. Meanwhile, the Germantown High School attendance zone meanders around like a drunk on Beale Street, seemingly picking up specific subdivisions and houses inhabited largely by white residents.

Looking at the attendance zones, it’s hard to imagine how Shelby County Schools officials can defend them with a straight face. They clearly are set up to keep black kids out of Germantown High School and to make sure white kids do.

As Judge Donald wisely concluded, the burden of proof is on the county district, and it simply failed. While her 62-page opinion sifted through her thinking, all that’s really needed is to consider the arrogance reflected on the attendance zone map.

As we have warned for more than a year, the county board’s decisions on Southwind High School were racially motivated from the beginning. While school officials can beat the drum and chant racial code words like busing and neighborhood schools, this time it will largely fall on deaf ears.

This time around, they’re not trying to intimidate county politicians into silence. They’re trying to pressure a federal judge, and in the end, it’s senseless, self-defeating behavior.

But then again, it’s that kind of behavior that got the board in this position in the first place. Rather than complain about Judge Donald’s decision, the board should take out a map of the district that shows where the students live and without regard to race, draw the attendance zone boundaries.

When you don’t pay attention to race, it’s pretty easy to come up with attendance zones that are more logical, and along the way, they’d be amazed at what they could come up – a district whose schools pass muster in a federal court. As a result of its recent decisions, the district now has five more years to prove that it can manage a district that treats all children fairly and equally.

This could have all been so much simpler. 


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