The slogans and yard signs have come out, now that early voting has started on the schools referendum: "If You Don't Know Vote No" and "VoteForUnity."
Never sell "don't know" short. Last week, the Memphis mayor's office came out with budget deficit projections ranging from $70 million to $125 million and layoff projections ranging from 350 to 2,100. Even those in the know don't know. And the schools mess will wind up in court, which will lead some people to "don't bother."
The pro-merger side has to choose between the symbolic feel-good message — unity — or the financial message — lower taxes — which is not at all certain.
Slogans aside, another way to look at the schools referendum is to ask this question: Is it worth it?
To answer that, we need to look at what can and can't be changed by surrendering the MCS charter and merging the city and county school systems. And then we need to ask if the things that can be changed are more likely to happen with or without a merger.
Here's what I think can be changed:
The discussion: There was as much or more publicity and probably a much bigger voter turnout for the 1991 mayoral election (won by Willie Herenton), but it was racially polarized. This is all about mixed alliances and younger players. Jack Sammons, a former city councilman and a lifelong Memphian, told me he's never heard so many people talking seriously about schools.
The tax imbalance between Memphis and the suburbs: Sooner or later, Memphis will go bankrupt if a shrinking tax base has to support more services and residents can opt to live in a neighboring suburb, where the taxes are 20 to 40 percent less. As FedEx founder Fred Smith said during the government consolidation debate, "In a market-based economy, not to grow means that your standard of living is going to decline. It's just that simple."
School district boundary lines and attendance zones: This is the point of the "firm boundaries" part of the proposed Shelby County special school district. Homebuyers, real estate agents, builders, and developers want to know which city and school district they're going to be in five years from now. Thirteen schools with more than 12,000 students are currently operated by Shelby County schools but located in the Memphis annexation area. School board membership and the size of the board can be increased and the district lines can be redrawn.
Superintendents can be replaced, just like coaches: Buyouts come with the territory. If you are a Kriner Cash fan, vote "no" on school consolidation. Otherwise, he's out of here within a year or so.
School system openness and accountability: Everything starts with honest numbers. Attendance, enrollment, and graduation rate numbers can be audited. Taxpayers should not have to pay for phantoms.
The uncertainty about what Memphians want: This is a city-only referendum. The result will tell us something.
This is what I think can't be changed:
School choice: The choices are broader than city or county schools. There are private schools and Mississippi schools minutes away. MCS has an open enrollment policy and several new charter schools. The strongest force in the universe is a parent determined to get their kid into a good school. Boundaries are nothing.
Resegregation: There are not enough white kids in the combined city and county system — about 32,000 out of 150,000 — to have racially balanced public schools. Racially unbalanced schools are a fact of life here. With a merger, we might have unity in the sense of one public system instead of two but probably not for long, if municipalities set up their own systems.
In-fighting on the school board: A bigger board would have fresh faces, but democracy guarantees diversity and disagreement. A merger of two public schools is not like a corporate merger. There are no lines of authority, no CEO, no hand-picked board. And nobody with a mandate to close schools and cut jobs.
The suburban dominance of the state legislature: They have the numbers.
The achievement gap between the very best schools and the worst schools: College-prep public high schools like White Station, Houston, Collierville, and Central have a magnet effect. It is not realistic to expect disadvantaged city schools that take all comers to compete with them.
As of Tuesday, only 3,619 people had voted in early voting. There is one question on the ballot. This is Memphis undiluted. The outcome will influence what suburban residents and the courts do.
This one was all about the television cameras — all eight of them.
The announcement on Valentine's Day that Mitsubishi Electric will build a $200 million plant in Memphis to employ 275 people was welcome, inspirational, giddy, and timely.
Memphis and Shelby County need a good story to tell. For more than a year, we've been making national news for teen pregnancies, foreclosures, a failed consolidation vote, Ernest Withers working for the FBI, the looming fight over two public school systems, and an unfortunate reference to Nazis.
The good news about the economy brought together Governor Bill Haslam, former senator Howard Baker, Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell, Democratic congressman Steve Cohen, and Republican state senator Mark Norris as well as basketball star Rudy Gay, who got the first shot at the microphone.
The lights went dim, and the Peabody Skyway went dark. There was a backdrop of red curtains in the shape of Mitsubishi's logo. Exactly what the giant Japanese conglomerate plans to make in Memphis had been kept secret until Monday. Would a subcompact Mitsubishi Motors electric car be unveiled behind the curtain?
No, it would not. Mitsubishi Electric Power Products makes 400-ton power transformers the size of box cars. Unlike Middle Tennessee and north Mississippi, Memphis is still not in the Southern states car-production game. But Mitsubishi Electric's 275 jobs, combined with the recent announcement that Electrolux is bringing 1,250 jobs from Montreal to Memphis, gives us a half-billion dollars in new investment and two big names to brag about.
Things learned this week about Mitsubishi Electric: 100,000 employees in 30 countries, including 3,000 in North America; annual sales of $30 billion; U.S. product lines include elevators and escalators, solar modules, computer memory chips, and 92-inch 3-D televisions; title sponsor of a Champions Tour golf tournament in Hawaii; the name Mitsubishi combines two words that mean "three" and "water caltrop," which is reflected in the logo.
Maybe something got lost in translation on that last part.
Once again, though, the picture of unity and progress and new jobs was the main thing. How excited was Mayor Wharton? On Monday afternoon, he sent out an e-mail "to all my sweethearts across Memphis — including you!" about the good news.
It was sort of icky but excusable under the circumstances. Three days earlier, the mayor had been crosswise with Haslam and Norris over the swift passage of the Norris-sponsored bill setting the terms of a possible merger of the school system. Their differences are major and a long way from being resolved.
Wharton wasn't sending out any Valentines to Haslam and Norris on that one. At a press conference on Friday afternoon, he sounded more like the fired-up captain of an underdog team than a law professor or honest broker of compromise. He is officially no longer neutral.
That goes for the referendum: "I'm for the people voting, I'm for the referendum," and, with a little prodding, for his own sentiments: "I'm going to vote yes."
But the unflappable mayor also struck a note of conciliation aimed at the governor with whom he reportedly speaks daily.
"In all things social, we can be as separate as the fingers on the hand," he said. "But in things economic we remain one, as a fist. Now, on things economic, to the advantage of the state and the city, I'm going to work with the governor just like that."
When was the last time you heard anyone in Memphis quoting Booker T. Washington? This was a rough translation of the takeaway line from Washington's speech on race relations to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895: "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court took those words to heart in the case of Plessy versus Ferguson. The result was more than half a century of legally sanctioned "separate but equal" railroad cars, schools, and public facilities.
There is a separate-but-equal issue in the discussion of special school districts and municipal school districts. But, for a day at least, that story took a backseat to some good news. Memphis, Shelby County, Nashville, Republicans, and Democrats were one as the hand in something essential to their mutual progress.
The beautiful Germantown Performing Arts Center was nearly full Monday night for a town hall meeting with the mayor and board of aldermen on city and county school consolidation.
There were at least 600 people in attendance. Employees counted them with clickers. The meeting lasted a little over two hours and was orderly and efficient, with frequent rounds of applause for speakers urging formation of a Germantown municipal school district as opposed to a Shelby County Special School District.
"Do not wait," said Elaine West, PTA president at Dogwood Elementary School. "Go. Go strong, go fast."
There were no protesters, no signs, no groups wearing T-shirts with slogans, and only a handful of black people. There was no booing of unpopular opinions and ideas, probably because there weren't any. No one said a favorable word about consolidation in any form or mentioned a merger proponent by name. Those who spoke were divided on preparing to set up a Germantown school system in two or three years or doing it now.
Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy and chief administrator Patrick Lawton stood behind a podium on one side of the stage. The five aldermen sat behind a table to their left. They did not speak, except for Mark Billingsley, who said the board supports Goldsworthy.
County school board president David Pickler was not there, or at least was not on stage. There were no representatives from the Memphis school board, which voted to surrender its charter subject to a Memphis referendum on March 8th. State senator Mark Norris was in Nashville. His "go-slow" bill setting up a 21-member transition committee and a 2013 start date for a possible merger is on a fast-track.
The board "could very well be dominated by what we might consider suburban folks," Goldworthy said, and "it could be a lot worse" if Memphians get to pick it.
Shelby County commissioners Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, and Heidi Shafer attended. Shafer got an ovation when she said people should ask themselves "if by trying to make things more equal we are not making them equally miserable."
Goldsworthy and Lawton told the crowd that there would have to be a change in state law to allow formation of a municipal school district and that is unlikely at this time. A special school district has a better chance, but Goldsworthy said it will probably end up in litigation and might leave Germantown open to future consolidation with Memphis. A municipal system consisting of the eight public schools in Germantown would cost at least 42 cents more in the property tax rate and possibly exclude approximately 4,000 students who attend those schools but live outside the city limits.
"Good question," Goldsworthy said when asked if those students would be displaced. "I don't have an answer to that right now."
There are about 8,500 students in Germantown schools, including Germantown High School and Houston High School. About 40 percent of the school-age children in Germantown attend private schools.
One speaker got a laugh and a round of applause when he said "this is proof that there is no correlation between wealth and intelligence."
About 30 people spoke during a question-and-answer session. Most of the comments and questions were about formation of a municipal school district. What would it cost? (At least 42 cents on the tax rate to make up for lost federal funding plus acquiring the buildings somehow.) Could Germantown take the schools by power of eminent domain? (Unclear, but it is "an incredibly interesting prospect" said Goldsworthy.) Might private school students return to a municipal Germantown system? ("Not likely," said Goldsworthy.) Would there have to be a referendum? (Yes, if taxing authority was part of the deal, said Lawton) Could Collierville and other suburbs do the same thing? (It's early, but there has been talk about it, Goldsworthy said.) Would the aldermen go on record in favor of munis right now? (After a tentative affirmative show of hands, Billingsley said, "Please don't go home thinking that we are divided.")
Looking ahead, Goldsworthy said the suburban strategy should be hoping that the Memphis referendum on March 8th fails. "This is not a slam dunk," she said, adding that little lobbying of Memphians wouldn't hurt. While a municipal system has obvious appeal, suburbs trying to buy school buildings would likely be dealing with a reconstituted Shelby County school board representing Memphians.
"It's very possible we would not be dealing with a willing seller," Goldsworthy said. "This is the 8,000-pound gorilla down the road."
Suburban influence is not as overwhelming as it seemed at Monday's meeting. The suburbs, Goldsworthy said, control only three seats on the 13-member county commission and face legislative obstacles and other problems in Nashville. Hence Germantown's sentiment to control its own destiny and leave non-residents, whether they are Memphians or outsiders attending Germantown schools, to fend for themselves.
One audience member suggested letting the cat out of the bag on a municipal district might lead the transition committee to discount Germantown's sincerity as far as a 2013 merger. Goldsworthy and Lawton repeatedly cautioned the crowd not to get ahead of itself, but the mayor could not conceal her personal enthusiasm. A municipal district would be and blend of "best practices" and "unlike any other."
Heading into the backstretch of the School Systems Derby, it's Undecided pulling even with Pickler Pony and Hart of Jones.
At least that's how I see it. The more I read and hear, the less I know about this big space-eater of a story. Pollsters like to talk about which way the "undecideds" are leaning. I see "ayes" and "nays" leaning "undecided."
Three weeks before early voting might begin in a Memphis referendum, Tennessee lieutenant governor Ron "Blountville Knows Best" Ramsey says not so fast. His arrogance could make merger opponents reconsider. Former mayor and superintendent Willie Herenton says it's about time Memphis came around to an idea he has been pushing in one form or another for 17 years. Perhaps, but his association with it might not help. Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash says stay the course. Mayor A C Wharton says how about that Electrolux deal?
Have you noticed ... how closing half-empty MCS schools went from an idea whose time has come to an idea nobody talks about any more?
Or that merger proponents continue to talk about a Shelby County special school district as if it could be financially independent of Memphis even though that is very unlikely, given that Memphians are a majority on the Shelby County Commission?
Or that 12 public schools in Shelby County are in no-man's-land, also known as the Memphis annexation area, and nobody knows if or when they will shift from SCS to MCS? If these 12 schools and their 7,656 black students are absorbed by MCS, then SCS will lose 40 percent of its black enrollment.
Or that Cash recently tossed out some numbers from an inner-city school that look as fishy as Derrick Rose's SAT score?
As for Ramsey and Herenton: Ramsey knows nothing about MCS; Herenton has forgotten more about MCS than most of the rest of us will ever know. At Hollywood Community Center last week, he made a pitch for MCS charter surrender and reminded everyone that in 1993 he suggested that the whole city surrender its charter because, "I did not want my city of Memphis to become another Detroit." Over the next 15 years, Herenton pitched consolidation in one form or another at least a half-dozen times.
No urgency, no action. Ideals are not the same as outcomes. The most complete analysis of possible outcomes is a 2008 University of Memphis study. There are two big "ifs." One is how much territory and how many of those 12 schools in Southwind, Cordova, and northwest Shelby County Memphis takes over. The other big "if" is how schools are funded and whose taxes go up and down. State funding is a given. So is county funding, under current law. Special school districts like Memphis and, perhaps, Shelby County can impose an additional property tax.
In the worst case for Memphis and best case for the suburbs, county government would stop using property taxes to fund schools, and each district would fund itself. In that case, the imbalance of Memphis and suburban taxes would get even more out of whack.
Finally, there is the story of the remarkable improvements in achievement scores and the graduation rate at Booker T. Washington High School. Cash said BTW achieved a graduation rate of 82 percent and outperformed Central High School in reading and math and is "within a couple points of White Station High School."
The inner-city school lost enrollment when the neighboring housing projects were torn down. By 2005, it had fewer than 700 students and a graduation rate of 52 percent. From 2005 to 2009, its graduation rate ranged from 52 percent to 60 percent. But in 2010, the rate soared 22 points. No other city high school has improved so much so fast. Statistical outliers like that are usually due to a change of population. BTW went from 629 students in 2009 to 549 last year. We can assume it wasn't the top students who left.
On the Tennessee Report Card, BTW does outscore Central in the percentage of students achieving proficiency in math, 52 percent to 46 percent. But Central and White Station, optional schools with more than 1,700 students each, score much higher in every other category. White Station has an average ACT composite score of 23 compared to 14 for BTW.
My point is not to beat up on BTW. Comparing it to an optional school is unfair. My point is that dramatic success stories must be verifiable and replicable. This one isn't.