Friday, December 17, 2010

MCS Board Should Go For It

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 1:18 PM

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You never know if a marriage or divorce is going to work out. You just have a feeling that it's an idea whose time has come. Maybe you put a pencil to it and tote up the costs and benefits and go to counseling, but it's not a checklist thing. It's a gut feeling that in the long run you should be hitched "for better for worse" or unhitched "due to irreconcilable differences."

The special school district for Shelby County is basically about getting divorced from Memphis. The charter surrender for Memphis City Schools is about getting married to Shelby County schools. My gut feeling is that the Memphis board of education should vote for this on Monday night and that Memphis voters should approve it if it comes to a referendum next year.

The numbers and charts produced by both sides are subject to interpretation and they are only best guesses of what will happen. They would change in ways we can't predict as individual families and our various legislative bodies reacted to charter surrender.

The 2008 schools study by the University of Memphis (which suggests more than one outcome) doesn't persuade me. That was a worthy attempt to crunch numbers and take a snapshot of a moving target, but the picture has changed and it will change again.

The tax argument is not persuasive even though Memphis has the highest property tax rate in Tennessee. An increase or decrease of 40 cents or so on the $7.26 rate amounts to a few hundred dollars a year for the middle-class homeowner and a few thousand dollars a year for the rich homeowner. People don't move from one place to another for that reason alone.

If you have or had kids in a good school in MCS you get your money's worth. And Tennessee is a low-tax state compared to the rest of the U.S. and even Mississippi once all taxes are considered. If you don't have kids in school then the tax differential on top of some other things could make the suburban or rural lifestyle more attractive. One of the problems Memphis has to deal with is that only a small percentage of its white population are MCS customers.

Businesses don't move purely on the basis of tax considerations either. Taxes and incentives are, say it one more time, one of several factors.

Most corporate mergers, like the majority of marriages, work out after a few years although not exactly as envisioned. If big corporations can merge, big school systems can merge if there are compelling reasons to do it.

What's compelling to me is the growth of suburban Shelby County and DeSoto County in the last 25 years. I remember riding Stateline Road and Germantown Road and Raines Road and Shelby Drive before they were fully developed with real estate pros Cary Whitehead, Jackie Welch, Barry Bridgeforth, and John Hyneman. When someone says "suburban sprawl" I think one person's sprawl is another person's American dream.

Whatever you call it, Memphis property taxes helped pay for it, at least in Shelby County. The separation of "Memphis" and "Shelby County" is a nagging and misleading distinction because Memphis makes up the majority of Shelby County's population and would have proportional representation on a consolidated school board.

Memphis is losing population and would have been losing population for about 50 years if it were not for annexations. Annexation ran off the rails after Cordova and Hickory Hill and there probably will not be another one with the possible exception of Southwind, which got a reprieve until 2013 three years ago.

The tax inequity combined with all the other suburban attractions from neighborhoods to fitness centers, megachurches, offices and grocery stores put Memphis at a tipping point. Less people and less tax base left to support more government services. That's the driving force.

We've resolved the school choice question from a legal and practical standpoint. A parent determined to get their kid into a certain city, county, public, private, charter, or optional school will not be denied. (I once sat in line overnight outside the school board with, among others, a federal judge.) The school systems and the federal courts finally recognized this. We're not going to have another massive white flight like in 1974. That bomb has already exploded.

At least 15 years of meetings of various committees and task forces on city and county schools have indicated the futility of resolving this by compromise.

A consolidated school system would probably take a couple years to set up. It might well consist of four or five subdistricts. It might well cost everyone more money in the short term. In the long term, I think it would be cheaper and better. It would feature open enrollment and school choice. Mobile, motivated parents would figure out how to work the angles, and there would be angles.

It would, as charter surrender proponent Martavius Jones says, put everyone in one boat instead of "us" and "them." There would still be high-performing college prep schools and low-performing inner city schools. There would certainly be all-black schools. And there would be a lot more charter schools, probably in the suburbs as well as the city.

It would still be possible, but not as easy, to make your school or system look good on test results by attracting a clientele that includes high achievers but not many low achievers. A couple of 20s, as Kriner Cash has said, will really drag down a bunch of 80s and 90s.

It would still be possible, but not as easy, to have new city schools in areas with low population due to political clout. The same goes for nearly all-black suburban schools due to gerrymandering and school choice.

It would still be possible, but not as easy, to make city schools look poorer and bigger than they are by overcounting and by mass certifying them as "Title Whatever" to secure maximum funds. A consolidated system would still have to close several former MCS schools.

For better for worse, MCS and Shelby County schools should get married.

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