How else to explain the pep rally at Hollywood Community Center Thursday night? Nice crowd of over 200, nice attentive atmosphere. Either by design or because of no-shows, it was a one-sided pro-merger panel of past and present elected officials including Willie Herenton, Henri Brooks, Martavius Jones, Hubon Sandridge, and Sidney Chism plus Thaddeus Matthews and Cardell Orrin.
Granted that one of the first responsibilities of a speaker is to put on a show. Granted that every argument needs a bad guy, hence the references to David Pickler, who wasn't there but has attended other hostile forums. Granted that, as Brooks said, it's still about race. And granted that most of the hot rhetoric was followed by a wink and a grin.
I still don't get the argument, if you can call it that, of Brooks, Herenton, Chism, Matthews, and Sandridge that black Memphians should feel one way about schools and that Kenneth Whalum Jr., Lasimba Gray, Freda Williams, Dwight Montgomery, and the leadership of the teacher's union to name just a few are out of step with the program. The notion that black or white people will and should vote a certain way on charter surrender is simplistic, stupid, and wrong and these panelists know it. But they talked like it was 1980 or 1970.
This is what passed for argument: If David Pickler is against it then you must be for it. The Commercial Appeal, aka "the newspaper," is playing up fear and wants to confuse "you." The day the vote is certified "we" are going to make sure "they" have no control. "We" are the majority in the city of Memphis so there is no way "we" can lose. To those leaving Shelby County, "don't let the door knob hit you where the good lord split you." And special school district status in Shelby County Schools means those residents won't have to pay county taxes, some of which support Memphis schools — which is simply not true. Special school districts pay twice.
Quoting from the 2008 University of Memphis study: "Property Tax Alternative 2: Each district would levey its own property tax as a primary funding source. Shelby County government would discontinue using property tax to fund the MCS and special school district; and the two school districts would utilize property tax each collects from their respective territories."
Anyway, on this night the show was the thing, and it was a pretty good one, with the audience getting into it. But like most meetings, it went too long. I left early to see the Central-White Station basketball game at the Spartan Palace at WSHS. I parked half a mile away but was surprised when I got inside to see the gym only about three quarters full. And it was basketball homecoming, too. When I was a regular at games during the Dane Bradshaw and J. P. Prince years, a sellout was really a sellout, especially when Ridgeway or Raleigh-Egypt were in the house.
Anyway, the basketball was high quality. Central has two really big guys who can play. White Station looks a year or two away. WSHS Principal David Mansfield roamed the sideline in a coat and tie and twinkling green headband. There was not a single white player on either team. The student section was packed, with guys in the front row with painted chests spelling out "Spartans." Central won a clean, hard-fought game.
This is integrated public education in Memphis in 2011. Take a good look. It's years may be numbered.
Memo to my fellow Memphis residents: the 'burbs are not kidding. There are legal complications to setting up a new municipal school district, but they have the numbers in the legislature and anything can happen in the courts, which follow public opinion to some extent. If Mr. and Mrs. Suburb put a pencil to it, the extra $1 on the tax rate or additional $1500 a year in property taxes will look pretty good compared to $12,000 or more for private school per year per kid and declining home values. The majority of suburban residents — and Tennesseans outside Memphis — see Memphis as black city that thinks one way. A simplistic, no-win, wrong generalization that some here are nevertheless promoting.
All three of those scapegoats have been getting a workout in the debates over surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. Kopp draws from the collective experience of 20,000 Teach For America graduates working in tough school districts like Memphis for the last 20 years. (Memphis is not specifically mentioned.)
From her new book "A Chance to Make History":
"Just as the silver bullet solutions ultimately prove insufficient in solving educational inequity, so too are these silver scapegoats undeserving of all the blame."
When she asked corps members if the general public understands the causes of bad schools, 98 percent said they did not. Their consensus, after putting in their two years, was that the public mistakenly blames "lack of parental involvement" and home life. Kopp says most corps members reported that parents were responsive if teachers and schools reached out.
Nor is the problem an absence of good teachers in rural and urban areas.
"The problem is that our urban and rural educators are asked to tackle much greater challenges than teachers in other communities without receiving the training and professional development to teach or lead in transformational ways."
Unions, one of the favorite targets of philanthropists and Republicans, get too much blame, too, Kopp says. It is not "fair and it isn't productive. It backs groups that we need as allies into a corner and ultimately it simply doesn't get us anywhere."
Often, she says, school reformers "focus on the high-hanging fruit and neglect attainable victories."
I read Kopp's book looking for clues to our citizens' choice, but could not find anything specifically addressing charter surrender or the merits of big districts versus smaller ones. Here are a few other takeaways, however:
1. The key to success is "local leadership and capacity to employ all the elements of strong vision." Interestingly, this was apparently written just before TFA alum and education superwoman Michelle Rhee left Washington D. C. as superintendent following the defeat of the Mayor who empowered her. And we have two mayors, two councils, and two school boards!
2. Place teachers in schools based on how well that fit a particular school's needs and values, not because they are looking for reassignment from another job. A consolidated school system could see hundreds of both. Lots of churn. Good grades don't necessarily make good teachers, but "teachers should not come, on average, from among the least academically accomplished."
3. Career ladders are often part of a "talent mindset" but should not be mandated at the state or federal level, Kopp says. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander presumably disagrees. While governor, he implemented the Tennessee Career Ladder for teachers. And he went on to become U.S. Secretary of Education.
4. New Orleans is becoming a national poster city for school reform. I don't get it. The city lost over half of its population and its school system shrank drastically after Katrina. Too many variables.
5. States watered down their standards to look good on tests due to No Child Left Behind. Kopp says that for all its faults, NCLB did highlight the achievement gap between schools.
6. Watch for Baltimore and schools superintendent Andres Alonso to be the next Washington/Michelle Rhee. Notably, Kriner Cash pointed out this week that Memphis has a better graduation rate than Baltimore.
7. As school reformer Brett Peiser says about school success, "There's not one big thing, there are one hundred one-percent solutions."
Speaking to the school board at its regularly scheduled meeting, Cash summarized his administration's "cradle to grave" philosophy for improving education. He said the system has made progress in safety, academics, graduation rate, private financial support, and other areas, but has a long way to go. Still, he said Memphis outperforms Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore with its 70 percent graduation rate.
Cash used the city's "City of Choice" presentation and fit his plans into it. Several times, he referenced the prospect of a merger and said "putting the systems together will not help." He said MCS has "the most comprehensive reform plan in the country."
The auditorium was only about half full, in contrast to recent meetings with overflow crowds to watch board members take key votes on surrendering the school system's charter. Cash has been mostly silent since making a passionate plea with the board to keep its charter and avoid a fight with Shelby County schools in December.
Cash urged students to spend less time watching television and using cell phones and more time reading.
"Turn if off and open a book," he said.
He also said students should "pull up your pants" and remove or cover up visible tattoos. And he twice referred to the pregnancy problem which has gained national attention.
"Take your time and decide when you might have a child," he said.
He said the only time consolidation works is when "you actually are in class together with children who have achieved more academically" and added that "you really get a pop if you can live in the same community."
He praised Booker T. Washington High School for achieving a graduation rate of 82 percent last year and outscoring Central High School, a highly touted optional school, in reading and math. He said BTW is "within a couple points of White Station High School."
However, a close examination of the 2010 Tennessee Report Card for the three schools does not support that statement, no matter whether the measuring stick is ACT Test scores, value-added scores, or No Child Left Behind measurements of proficiency. Central and White Station score much higher in almost every category. BTW does outscore Central in the percentage of students achieving proficiency in math, 52 percent to 46 percent. White Station, an optional school with a large number of college-bound students, has much higher scores across the board.
In 2009 Memphis City Schools accepted a $90 million grant from the foundation to improve teaching in the district. The uncertain fate of the grant if MCS surrenders its charter has been an issue recently. A spokesperson for the foundation released this statement Thursday:
"The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation came to Memphis because of its students and teachers, its courageous district, union and board leadership, and the community’s clear commitment to improving educational outcomes for all. We will stay in Memphis for the same reasons.
"Dr. Kriner Cash and his team have our deep appreciation for their “student first” approach and our strong confidence in their continued leadership. The teachers of Memphis have our deep respect for their commitment to the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and the students of Memphis. The decision to surrender the charter does not change that.
"If approved by the voters of Memphis, consolidation will be a challenging process. But we have every confidence that regardless of what is ultimately decided by Memphians, the board and leadership of Memphis City Schools will continue to put students and teachers first.
"We are committed either way—to a continued Memphis City Schools or a consolidated Shelby County Schools, as long as effective teaching and improved outcomes for all students remains a top priority."
It was signed by Vicki Phillips, Director of Education, College-Ready, and released to the Memphis City Council and posted by Councilman Myron Lowery.
Jay Leno should do a "Jay Walking" segment featuring New York psychiatrists and "Today Show" experts and hosts who did not challenge Taylor's "no OBGYNs" comment.
Everyone in Memphis gets to fire off their best Jeff Foxworthy joke — and several have been excellent.
But when the laughter and outrage and national publicity dies down, poor "Fraser" High School will still be poor Frayser High School, and those however-many pregnant girls will still be there, and Memphis will have to make this into a teachable moment as we prepare for the real possibility of merging two big school systems.
What would you do about Frayser High, which aside from being a magnet school for pregnant girls and young mothers is not all that unlike the majority of Memphis high schools?
According to the Tennessee Report Card, Frayser HS has around 800 students and is 98 percent black and 92 percent "economically disadvantaged." The ACT scores are in the 14-15 range, well below the state average of 20-21. It is not the biggest city high school (that would be Cordova, Whitehaven, and White Station, each with more than 1,900 students) or the smallest (nine high schools have fewer than 600 students). It is not the oldest (Central) or the newest (Douglas).
In Memphis, the chances are better than 90 percent that a black or Hispanic student attends a high school that is 99% or 100% minority and more than 90 percent economically disadvantaged. Only two high schools — White Station and Cordova — come close to matching the demographics of the city as a whole. By Memphis standards, Central High School (1697 students, 67% economically disadvantaged) and Ridgeway High School (1285 students, 73% economically disadvantaged) are diverse even though each of them is 86 percent black.
In the Shelby County system, only two high schools — Millington and Southwind — look like Memphis high schools. The majority of high schools have student bodies that are mostly white and 10-30% economically disadvantaged.
These are the systems we are proposing to merge into one district. One idea being tossed around is five sub-districts. Easy to say, hard to do. Other than those pregnant girls, nobody is likely to line up to go to Frayser High School, or those nine high schools with fewer than 600 students, or the city elementary schools with fewer than 400 students. Which subdistrict gets Frayser? Which principal gets assigned there? Which idealistic young teachers want to take a shot at it, when charter schools and optional schools and suburban schools beckon?
We can enjoy the light moment and distraction provided by Dr. Janet's slip-up, but the hard stuff and the serious side of her remarks is ahead of us.
The vote was 7-2, following more than three hours of discussion. An amended version of the compromise which was supported by MCS board member Jeff Warren did not come to a vote.
The county proposal would have had MCS rescind its charter surrender vote in December in exchange for SCS agreeing not to pursue special district status. A team of citizens of Memphis and Shelby County would have worked with an expert on school mergers to craft a plan to be presented for a countywide vote rather than a Memphis-only vote. That was one of the fatal flaws in both proposed compromises.
"I'm still not sure how we keep calling this a compromise," said board member Tomeka Hart on the county proposal.
Board member Betty Mallott, who voted against charter surrender in December, said she was against rescinding the earlier vote but willing to work with SCS in the future.
Warren, a physician, said he tried to look at the schools crisis as a doctor would, with an eye toward making the community healthy and easing the fears of both sides.
"This is a mature plan," he said of his plan.
MCS board members Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Freda Williams were the lone votes to accept Shelby County's offer. Williams said the board holds would-be charter schools for 20 students to a higher planning standard than her colleagues are accepting for a huge merger.
Whalum said Tuesday was "the first day of the campaign to defeat the referendum."
Warren said his proposal "is not dead" but there appeared to be little enthusiasm for it. Warren said he was handicapped by the sunshine law that requires public business to be conducted in public meetings. He said that meant he could talk to county board members but not to his own colleagues, who were seeing his proposal for the first time Tuesday.
The upshot is that a Memphis-only referendum in March or sooner is now more likely, although saying anything is certain in this story is dangerous. The state legislature could yet weigh in with something that could stall or prevent a referendum. Tuesday's school board action came a few hours after the Memphis City Council voted 10-0 to support the school board's decision to surrender the charter. It takes effect March 21st and would dissolve MCS without a referendum. School board attorney Dorsey Hopson called that action questionable on Constitutional grounds, but the board had other business on this night.
The main provisions of Warren's plan include hiring a school district governance expert, appointing a joint committee by March 1st, and coming up with a new model for city and county schools based on a chancellor and five smaller districts than either of the current districts.
The Shelby County Election Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday to set a date for a city-only referendum on shifting schools administration to Shelby County. The next scheduled city school board meeting is January 24th.
Tuesday's meeting took four hours even though the vote rejecting Shelby County school board's proposal took only a few minutes. Much of the other time was spent in a question-and-answer session with attorneys Mike Marshall and Ernest Kelly about employee benefits and pensions in the event of a merger. After that, there was a long discussion of semantics and the words "consolidation" and "merger," with Whalum insisting the board had already surrendered the charter and the media has inaccurately reported this. Hopson opined that some words have both a precise legal definition and a general meaning for the sake of conversation and communication.
Superintendent Kriner Cash sat through every minute of the meeting but said, literally, only a few words. Board member Sara Lewis tried to get him to agree to a point she was making, but Cash would only say, after a pause, "lot of complicated things, yes." Cash will present the new budget at the next meeting.
Watson, president of LeMoyne-Owen College, a 1960 graduate of same, and a former Memphis City Schools superintendent, is as wise and civil as they come. He knows what it is like to close schools in fact, not in theory. He knows the machinations of the Shelby County school board and the state legislature. He knows the wrath of Sara Lewis. And he has worked with every MCS superintendent from E. C. Stimbert to Kriner Cash.
And he is not ready to reveal his position on charter surrender, although he said he will do it if and when it becomes clear that a referendum is certain. For now, he is not sure that will happen, given that the Tennessee General Assembly was meeting Saturday morning even as LeMoyne Owen and the Tri-State Defender hosted a schools forum with speakers Dwight Montgomery, David Pickler, Martavius Jones, and Warner Dickerson.
Watson said his wife commented on how happy he has seemed since the schools merger debate flared up a month ago.
"I'm happy because I'm president of LeMoyne and not superintendent of Memphis City Schools," he said.
Asked after the forum if he has a position, Watson said "I'm biased in favor of Memphis City Schools" but he would not say whether or not he favors charter surrender. However, he said he will take a public position later if there is a referendum.
About 80 people attended the forum. Unfailingly courteous panelists stuck to familiar positions, and the audience was urged not to clap or boo, and for the most part they did not. Pickler emphasized that the Shelby County school board would be in charge if MCS surrenders its charter, and local, state, and federal funding for MCS would decline. Jones said "nothing prevents that board from saying we are one school district now" if a referendum is held and a de facto merger is the result.
Several more debates are scheduled in coming weeks at various locations.
Here's a passage from The CA story:
"Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said he has been reassured by board members from both systems that the outlines of a deal can be approved by both boards.
"They are confident that some type of compromise is in the offing," he said.
A source with direct knowledge of the talks confirms that view."
Jeff Warren? Chris Peck? David Pickler? Mark Norris? Who has hammered out this reassuring historic agreement in secrecy, and who is the source with direct knowledge who, presumably, was in on the deal? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.
(UPDATE) The CA story in the print edition Thursday was better sourced with names and attributions.
One of the positives as this story unfolds has been the willingness of elected officials and ordinary citizens to put their names and faces behind the comments. Several of them have gone into the other side's territory to see, hear, and speak. Old lines are breaking down — black/white, liberal conservative, suburban/city. People seem to be thinking for themselves, listening to conflicting arguments, and keeping open minds. Good things.
The Commercial Appeal is reporting that a deal is in the works whereby both sides would "stand down" and hold talks for a year, then have a countywide referendum next year on merging the school systems.
The MCS board voted 5-4 in December to surrender its charter, subject to a city-only referendum.
Jones said he had seen the news story but is not part of any deal. The board has a working meeting Thursday but cannot take any action until its next scheduled meeting on January 24th. The Commercial Appeal report, quoting county mayor Mark Luttrell and unnamed sources, said the MCS board would have to vote to rescind its action.
That could happen if newly elected board member Sara Lewis votes with surrender opponents and no other member changes their vote. Lewis replaced Sharon Webb, who voted for surrender.
On Tuesday, Jones was the lone surrender proponent on a panel at the Memphis Education Association membership meeting. Proponents of delay, led by state senator Mark Norris, are trying to gain the upper hand and bring county residents outside of Memphis into a referendum.
The advocacy group is called Citizens for Better Schools and the slogan will be "Vote Yes for School Unity."
Standing together in the lobby of the county building were the above plus Johnnie Turner, Harold Collins, Tomeka Hart, Martavius Jones, Russell Sugarmon, G. A. Hardaway, Thaddeus Matthews, Michael Hooks Jr., and others. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton briefly passed through the lobby before the proceedings began but hustled into an elevator. His position at this point is neutral, but Chism said "I think he should take a stand."
Flinn noted the large number of churches in Memphis, sometimes said to outnumber gas stations, and wondered, "If we have that many churches, how can we have so little faith in our community?"
Malone predicted her side will form "the most impressive coalition we have seen for a referendum in (Memphis) history."
Hardaway urged county school board president David Pickler, whose name recognition has gone off the charts in the last 30 days, to "sit down with Memphis City Schools and begin planning for a contingency transition."
Smith added a historical note and some gravitas to the event. She said 35 years ago when she was on the city school board a charter surrender vote failed by a single vote, with black and white board members NOT splitting along racial lines. She said today's opponents "know we are right and know we are going to win."
The Tennessee Department of Education finally issued its long-delayed 2010 Report Card, with a major adjustment to the scoring system to make it harder and more in line with national standards.
Shelby County Schools got grades of "A" in math (55), science (56), social studies (58), and reading/language (55) for grades 3-8. The raw scores are in parentheses. The average ACT score was 21.
Memphis City Schools got grades of "D" in math (40), and "F" in science (35), social studies (38), and reading/language (38). The average ACT score was 16.6.
The state average grade and score was "C" in math (49), "C" in science (49), "B" in social studies (51), and "C" in reading/language (49). The average ACT score was 19.6.
Shelby County Schools have 53 schools and 47,342 students, of whom 16,995 (37 percent) are listed as economically disadvantaged. Per-pupil spending is $8,439.
Memphis City Schools have 187 schools and 103,593 students, of whom 89,784 (87 percent) are economically disadvantaged. Per-pupil spending is $10,767.
Complete report cards are on the Tennessee Department of Education website.
Chuck Cagle of Nashville met with the board for nearly two hours, answering questions on dozens of topics from funding to dress codes. He was methodical but did not appear partisan or scripted. His answers, he said, were designed to stand up in court, not please any constituency. He urged the board to put students first. He was given a loud ovation from board members when he finished.
"My admonition to you today is take the high road," he said, and do what "grants the greatest good to the greatest number of people."
Cagle said he has been through five previous school consolidations, including Knoxville and Chattanooga. He was introduced by board president David Pickler. Each of the seven board members took turns asking questions. Superintendent John Aitken was mostly an observer.
In his opening remarks, he said he would try to "stop the panic if we can and get to the hard business of what may be inevitable."
He said the size of the two districts alone makes this unique and especially difficult.
"Things are just different here," he said.
Some of Cagle's observations:
On tax savings: There were none in Chattanooga or Knoxville. "There is no evidence at all out there that consolidation saves money."
On costs: The biggest cost is equalizing pay and benefits, which account for 75-80 percent of most school system operating budgets.
On the current and potential future school board: Current county board members would serve out their terms. New districts would have to be drawn to cover all of Shelby County. A new board could have more than seven members.
How long it takes: Cagle estimated the transition would take a year to 18 months, based on the experience of other Tennessee cities. But that is only a guess because the potential merger would combine MCS, the 17th largest system in the country, with SCS, which is only the 7th largest system in Tennessee.
Superintendent contracts: They must be honored. Titles could change to "co-superintendent" or something else.
Teachers: "Teachers' rights are not diminished." The city's contract with its teachers is valid and must be honored.
Pay differentials for other staff would have to be worked out.
Charter school contracts are "a looming question" to be looked at case by case.
Federal contracts: "The federal government is going to have to figure out how to revamp their contracts" for instructional services and food service.
The Gates Foundation grant to MCS: "That is up to Gates Foundation."
Real property: Buildings do not transfer by statute. "Some delicate discussions have to be undertaken." This "could be a serious impediment" to a smooth transfer.
Who's in charge? It is the school board's job, not the county commissions, to manage the transition.
Could the MCS charter be put to a referendum by a petition of 25 citizens? Yes. Procedurally, such a petition would be forwarded to the city school board which could not override it and would pass it along to the Shelby County Election Commission.
Who gets to vote in a referendum? The situation is unique, and "a good argument could be made" that non-Memphis residents of Shelby County get to vote.
Is Memphis a special school district? Yes. "We can't get around that."
Is this a precursor to general consolidation? No. They are two issues. Knoxville never consolidated after its school systems were consolidated.
Does the MCS board cease to exist? "Technically, yes," if there were a referendum on Feb. 15 that approved shifting administration of schools to Shelby County. (NOTE: In a separate action Thursday, City Council Attorney Allan Wade said the referendum should say transfer administration, not surrender the charter.)
The fiscal year: From the point of view of state funding, the Memphis district would survive until June 30th then shift to Shelby County.
Building compliance with codes: They must be inspected and, if necessary, fixed out of capital funds. This is a likely source of lawsuits, Cagle said.
Transition team: Not required but "from my experience I would urge you to have one." Cagle said "It will help you know what you need to know."
Per-pupil spending: Could be reset somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000 or more.
Memphis taxes: "My experience has been there has been no reduction in city taxes when there has been consolidation." County taxes could go up. In a reversal of the current situation, county residents outside Memphis could be taxed twice and Memphians once if the charter is surrendered and Shelby County Schools goes ahead and becomes a special district. In that case, MCS would become the Shelby County Schools, minus the old Shelby County Schools.
Dress codes and corporal punishment: That is up to the policy manual. The controlling one would be the current SCS manual which does not have a dress code but does have corporal punishment.
What should SCS do? "My job is to give you options we can defend in court. You will make those decisions."
Board member Diane George asked, "are we just making this up as we go along?" Cagle said, "Yes, pretty much."
At the close of the meeting, Aitken asked the board to authorize litigation as a procedural process, which it did.
This is shocking and Un-American. Like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and any self-respecting columnist, blogger, or commenter, we are all supposed to have a position on everything from school consolidation to the European debt crisis, the designated hitter, Jay Leno, and True Grit. I know this because I watch television, read comment strings, and am on the receiving end of urgent messages from friends, colleagues, and strangers who are wound up about lots of things I know and care nothing about.
As a card-carrying columnist, my standard position is "take a position." Like the Wall Street Journal says, who needs "on the one hand, on the other hand editorials?"
But in this case the mayors are right for the time being, which could change today, tomorrow, or the next day.
"What we are proposing is a wind-down period of 120 days," Wharton said.
The mayors are seeking new legislation to make it legally binding because of the potential Memphis sudden surrender and the unique Memphis City Schools' charter.
Wharton and Luttrell agreed that they will remain neutral between now and the referendum — probably in February — but try to provide both a contingent transition structure and voter information. They said the answer to questions about taxes and jobs in the event of charter surrender is not clear. but they will give information from other cities and counties that consolidated their schools, such as Chattanooga and Hamilton County.
"There are still a multitude of unanswered questions," said Luttrell. "Quite honestly, there are no clear answers to all these questions."
The mayors held a joint press conference at City Hall attended by several Memphis City Council members, Shelby County commissioners, and school board members Freda Williams and Martavius Jones.
If the referendum passes, the mayors would appoint an 11-member planning team including public officials and four citizens at large.
The planning team would have authority over school district governance, infrastructure, and recommendations relative to school board membership and district size. It would not have authority on budgeting issues but could make recommendations.