I had a dream. Not a Martin Luther King-type dream of a better America, but a dream about high school. I am way past high school, but this is an unintended consequence of spending too much time going to school board meetings and reading the Tennessee Report Card.
In the dream, I was trying to get into a private school that looked like Harry Potter's Hogwarts. Everyone was wearing blazers and white shirts. I was wearing jeans and a Trout Slayer Ale long-sleeved T-shirt and had just finished eating a rack of ribs, served wet. Not prepared for the test, you might say, but at least I was not naked. The headmaster asked me my name. In a panic, I looked in vain for a white shirt and a bathroom. Then I woke up.
Maybe I should see a psychiatrist, but it's uninsurable, I don't have the money, and it probably wouldn't take anyway. I think my subconscious was telling me, "Don't forget private schools."
So instead of seeing a shrink, I called Dr. O.Z. Stephens.
Now retired, Stephens helped write court-ordered desegregation Plan Z in 1972 when he worked for Memphis City Schools (MCS). Inasmuch as his middle initial was "Z," he got tagged with it. He knows a lot about white flight and public and private schools. In 1973 and 1974, some 40,000 white kids left the Memphis public schools for county schools and private schools because of busing.
"We sure enough desegregated the schools, given the legal term," he said. "We satisfied the federal court. But we also created the largest segregated school system in the South, called the Memphis Private and Parochial School System."
Stephens lives in Bartlett and left MCS in 1984. He said he would vote against school consolidation if he could.
"I love the Memphis City Schools system. I gave 30 years to it. I am not an alarmist, but folks in Bartlett, Southwind, Bolton, and Millington, they don't want to be jerked around. There will be a different kind of white flight. I don't think it will happen for a year or so if the existing county school board is in charge. But the minute Memphians take over the county system, which they will, it will be bye-bye.
"You can get the tenor of some unrest in county schools right now in the talk of redistricting Bartlett, Bolton, and Arlington," Stephens said. "Folks just get bent out of shape when you say that in four years, the eighth grade is going to be reassigned. When this merger comes, you're going to have folks who are going to look for options in private schools and surrounding counties."
Nobody knows exactly how many kids are in private school in Shelby County. There are blueblood schools like MUS, Hutchison, St. Mary's, and PDS; Christian schools like Briarcrest, ECS, and Harding; Catholic schools like Memphis Catholic, Christian Brothers, and St. Benedict at Auburndale; Jewish schools like Solomon Schechter; newer schools like St. George's.
There is an arms race in private education. The fancy facilities and sky-high standardized test scores have to be seen to be believed. The charter-surrender debate is being framed as if the only choices are school equivalents of Walmart and Target, but there are also the Shops of Saddle Creek and the Avenue Carriage Crossing.
My way of keeping up with the privates is reading the sports page in The Commercial Appeal. You can get a pretty fair idea of who's going where by looking at the pictures of the "Best of Preps" teams in the private and public school conferences.
There was a time 25 years ago when the Memphis Tigers basketball team was a cross-section of players from public high schools from Grand Junction to Melrose to West Memphis. No more. Today's elite athletes — Michael Oher, Elliot Williams, Barry Brunetti — are as likely to be recruited by a private school or attend a sports academy.
If you are a parent, do whatever you have to do to get your kid into a good school. If you live in Memphis, make a thoughtful vote in the referendum. And if you decide to put your kid in private school, I hope you don't have barbecue sauce on your hands when you meet the headmaster.
Mayor A C Wharton wants to be an honest broker. Memphis City Schools board member Jeff Warren wants compromise, not chaos. Former Memphis City Schools superintendent Johnnie B. Watson is glad he's president of LeMoyne-Owen and not superintendent. He's staying out of it, for now. Stand For Children, a group of more than 400 Memphis education advocates, has tried to remain officially neutral until this week, when its position will officially change.
These are just some of the key people and groups wrestling with the complicated issue of surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter and forcing a merger with Shelby County Schools.
Rarely has it been so hard to stay out of a fight. There could be a referendum as early as March, with early voting in February. The stakes are huge. The outcome will impact taxes, schools, and neighborhoods for years. The rules change with the headlines from day to day.
Rarely has there been so little information about exactly what that impact will be. Some of the consequences are unknowable. Would a referendum pass? If it did, would residents of Memphis and Shelby County stay put or move? Would the current superintendents of the two school systems stay on the job? What about the Shelby County school board, which would call the shots about a decision not of its making?
And rarely have so few had such influence over so many. On December 20th, the MCS board voted five to four to surrender the charter and transfer administration to Shelby County, pending a referendum of Memphis voters.
A mandate it was not. Not one member was elected because of their views on charter surrender.
Of the five members who voted "aye," Stephanie Gatewood, Tomeka Hart, and Patrice Robinson were elected without opposition in 2008. Martavius Jones was elected without opposition in 2010, and Sharon Webb was defeated in 2010 and got only 17 percent of the vote.
Of the four members who voted "nay," Warren was elected without opposition in 2008, Betty Mallott was elected without opposition in 2010, Freda Williams was elected in 2008 with 44 percent of the vote, and Kenneth Whalum was elected in 2010 with 68 percent of the vote. The newest member, Sara Lewis, was elected in 2010 with just 900 votes in a runoff to replace Webb.
In an earlier column, I wrote that Stand For Children is pro-surrender. I was politely informed that this was not exactly correct. Stand For Children is a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit with a chapter in Memphis that organized last year. Its mission is "to teach everyday people how to join together in an effective grassroots voice in order to win concrete, long-lasting improvements for children at both state and local levels."
Several members spoke at the December 20th meeting. Wearing identical T-shirts, they gave every appearance of speaking with one voice. In fact, however, they agreed only on opposing special-school-district status for Shelby County. On the issue of charter surrender, speakers were carefully chosen to represent both views, by agreement of the organization's board and leadership.
Executive director Kenya Bradshaw said members voted in early December to oppose special-school-district status as "financially irresponsible." But a membership vote on charter surrender is open until Wednesday evening and will be announced by Friday.
"We are in favor of people getting more information from both sides and making an informed decision," Bradshaw said.
A classic straddle, you might say, but who can blame them?
The flaw in this reasoning, I suggest, is that getting more information about some consequences is not possible and an informed decision could lead different people to different conclusions. It's not that people like A C Wharton, Jeff Warren, and Johnnie Watson are not informed. The issue is whether to keep talking for a year or so or vote in a month or so.
We're on a fast track. Neutrality won't be an option much longer.
This schools deal is about white men in suits.
For a long time, white men in suits ran Memphis and Shelby County. Black people and women got their say, but white men in suits got their way. Now it is white men in suits who might get their say but not their way.
If you look at the schools as Custer's Last Stand or the Alamo for white men in suits, you will miss a few pearls and a few pains, but you will have a fairly good understanding of what is otherwise as inscrutable to laymen as curling, British Parliament, or inside baseball.
When I came to Memphis to work for The Commercial Appeal in 1982, white men in suits were still at the controls of the newspaper, network television, local government, Congress, and big business. The Internet and personal computers and the reign of Willie Herenton as mayor were a decade or more in the future.
At the CA, which would have an open field after the afternoon daily Memphis Press-Scimitar closed in 1983, the efforts to promote diversity were sometimes serious and effective and sometimes comical. The inner sanctum of white men in suits was the editorial-writing staff, led by the pipe-smoking editor, an elderly gentleman with a Harvard pin, and the late Norman Brewer, always a dapper volcano of reason and correct thought.
To this triumvirate was added, briefly, future syndicated columnist and author Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who thought for herself and hated being confined to an office. It didn't take, but it was, to me at least, a perfect example of the imperfect come-join-us thinking of white men in suits.
An era was ending. So it went for the next 25 years, as women and blacks ascended to jobs as CEOs, network news anchors, editors, mayors, senators, and president.
White men in suits still have a lot of clout. They run most big businesses and chambers of commerce. They have fortunes and can start foundations and influence public policy through their philanthropy. They are resurgent in the Tennessee General Assembly and many cities east of the Tennessee River. And they rule the Shelby County school system, which has a white male superintendent and six white male and one white female school board members.
Having meetings, letting cooler heads prevail, and appointing special committees are bedrock principles of white men in suits. For years, they ensured that they would get their way. Most of the people pushing the city and county school boards to slow down and talk out their differences instead of opting for a hostile surrender of the city schools charter are white men in suits — school board members David Pickler and Jeff Warren, Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, state senator Mark Norris, Tennessee election coordinator Mark Goins, and Shelby County Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini, to name a few.
Of course, there are a lot of blacks and women in the slow-down camp too. There is no glass ceiling in Memphis City Schools, and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association are opposed to surrender. (A general membership meeting was held after our deadlines.) But the practical effect of letting the Shelby County school board and the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly have their way with Shelby County Schools would be the perpetuation of the status quo.
Day by day, the slow-down measures look more desperate. There is a sense that history is being made, that something new and different and better can be forged in Memphis and Shelby County. Who wants to be on the wrong side of history? There is also a sense that we are in a canoe without a paddle heading for, if not a waterfall, at least some Class III rapids.
When legislatures meet and debate goes on too long, impatient members start to holler "vote." A sizable number of Memphians is hollering "vote." At a rally last week, the pro-surrender force included Shelby County commissioners Deidre Malone and Sidney Chism, MCS board members Tomeka Hart and Martavius Jones, state representatives G.A. Hardaway and Johnnie Turner, and Memphis City Council members Harold Collins and Shea Flinn (white and male but not in a suit).
A blast from the past, former school board member and NAACP leader Maxine Smith, joined them and said this to their opponents:
"They know we are right, and they know we are going to win."
What the city-county schools story needs is a new metaphor to replace the apt but overused "shotgun wedding" and "nuclear showdown."
To have a shotgun wedding you need an angry father holding a shotgun on one or both parties. Short of a judge stepping into this drama, I don't see anyone playing that role yet. As for the nuclear option, Memphis will always be Memphis, and in the eyes of some, we got nuked a long time ago.
As an alternative, I propose "hostile surrender," a twist on a familiar phrase from the world of big business. In a hostile takeover, a big company takes over a smaller company against its will, either buying it outright or buying controlling shares of its publicly traded stock. Sometimes the attempt is thwarted by a "poison pill" provision that makes the targeted company unattractive or unaffordable.
In a hostile surrender, Memphis City Schools could give up its charter and be forcibly merged with Shelby County Schools, which would rather be left alone. Memphians get to vote on it. Shelby County residents outside of Memphis don't, unless a judge says otherwise. "Hostile" fairly describes the attitude toward Memphis of those county residents who voted four-to-one against consolidation last year.
As for the poison pill, in this case it's Shelby County Schools threatening to swallow one via legislation in Nashville to make itself immune to a merger. But it might not work, and SCS leaders know it. They showed some fear, and they spread some fear at their press conference on Monday.
First they appealed to the Memphis school board to reconsider its 5-4 decision, which is not likely to happen. Then they appealed to Memphis voters to oppose a merger by playing on their fears of losing jobs, public funding, grants, optional schools, charter schools, transportation, 7:20 a.m. start times, labor agreements, even food service. With a hostile surrender, SCS board president David Pickler said, the explosive issue of closing at least six and possibly as many as 20 low-enrollment city schools would be in the hands of the current county school board, which would stay in place until three of the seven members' terms expire August 31, 2012.
"This is not an issue about race," said Pickler, standing shoulder to shoulder with five other white males.
In a way he is right. SCS has approximately 20,000 minority students in its 47,000-student population. In the eyes of the federal courts and the NAACP, it is certifiably desegregated.
And in a way he is wrong. The county school board is all-white, and a few county schools slated to become city schools by annexation are nearly all-black. Voting majorities, self-segregation, and school boundaries are responsible.
Race is even more of an issue in Memphis. The school system is 90 percent black, and the number of white students, clustered in a half-dozen or so schools, goes down steadily. Shelby County didn't invent secession. Memphians have been fleeing city schools for county and private and parochial schools for 50 years. As the school system goes, so goes the city and its tax base.
So be it, say some MCS board members and churchmen opposed to charter surrender. Their duty, they believe, is to the 100,000 students who come, not the ones who left.
"You elected me to serve the children, not surrender them," said board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. to cheers at his swearing-in ceremony on Monday.
On the other side are board members Martavius Jones, Tomeka Hart, Patrice Robinson, and Stephanie Gatewood, along with state representative G.A. Hardaway and Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism.
Hardaway says the pro-surrender campaign will have to keep it simple: one tax for schools, lower taxes for Memphians, control of our own destiny. The mayors, he believes, should stay above the fray and concentrate on a conditional transition plan.
He thinks the referendum is a go, despite "delaying tactics" by the Shelby County Election Commission. If there is a legal challenge to the Memphis-only referendum, he said he will go to court and argue that Memphis residents don't get to vote for Shelby County school board members.
"I'm loving the fact that we've got some serious conversation going from top to bottom," he said. "We've always had it at the top, but I am hearing from folks in barber shops and restaurants and gyms. Everyone is finally engaged in trying to figure things out. No matter what happens in the vote, that is positive."