Surely, no one would have expected in advance that Thursday night’s school-consolidation forum sponsored by the Mid-South Tea Party at Bartlett Municipal Center to be Shea Flinn’s cup of tea. But it turned into just that for the pro-merger city councilman from Midtown.
Not only did Flinn charm the overwhelmingly anti-merger crowd of maybe 200 with his candor and deft replies, he actually had a large cup of freshly bought iced tea brought to him by a spectator. Thereafter, he would periodically guzzle from a straw as his rhetorical adversaries — Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler, State Representative Curry Todd, and Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald — took turns with the Anti position on consolidation.
It wasn’t meant to be a three-on-one — or, since the forum itself was preceded by a brief “town meeting” conducted by anti-merger county commissioners Chris Thomas, Terry Roland, and Wyatt Bunker, a six-on-one. But it turned out that way when one scheduled pro-merger panelist, State Representative G.A. Hardaway, ended up at another forum instead, and another, Memphis City Schools board member Martavius Jones, had to leave early for undisclosed reasons.
Flinn liked the odds. “I got this, although I was told there would be tea here,” he said. (Hence, the surprise gift from an audience member later on.)
Charming the crowd was one thing, convincing it was quite another. The closest Flinn got to getting concurrence from either the audience or any of the anti-merger panelists came when he opined that the whole consolidation controversy was not about education. “It’s about taxes. It’s about money,” he said Pickler seconded that motion, though his sense of how to apply that theory — as a way of saying consolidation would prove costly, not efficient — differed from Flinn’s.
And, rhetoric being rhetoric, both Flinn and Pickler, like the other participants, would also argue from the other end of the stick — that it was all about the pursuit of educational excellence, not money — each seeing his own perspective as the best way of guaranteeing academic achievement. At no point did any panelist touch upon the issue of race, though in the town-meeting warmup Thomas had extolled SCS for being “the most integrated school system in the state.”
On a night when, it seemed, four or five other consolidation-related forums were going on elsewhere, the one at Bartlett Municipal Center —, moderated by radio talk show host Ben Ferguson, who was later joined by WMC-TV anchor Joe Birch — was surprisingly informative . (Especially since, speaking of one-sided arrangements, Roland had quipped during the town meeting portion that disputes between himself and fellow suburban members Bunker and Thomas, on one hand, and the ten commissioners representing the City of Memphis, on the other, could be resolved this way: “We should go outside with all ten of them and whoever comes back inside could have it their way.”)
Actually, before his abrupt departure, Jones had his moments — for example, in making the familiar case that last December’s motion for dissolution of the MCS charter and subsequent merger with SCS, initiated by himself and fellow board member Tomeka Hart, was made necessary by the expressed post-election readiness of Pickler and SCS to push for a special school district. (After Jones had gone, Pickler would remind the crowd of a recent Flyer article in which Jones acknowledged having considered surrendering the charter as early as election night last November — a disclosure that imposed some chicken-and-egg uncertainty on the matter.)
Jones and Pickler got into a dispute about the meaning of the state Department of Education’s annual report cards, which most recently showed the SCS system with an A average, while MCS scored an F. Jones pointed out that the numerical difference was one of the mid 50s versus mid 40s, both scores failing on a 100-point scale, and he wondered: Why should anyone brag about making a higher F than someone else? Pickler disagreed, however, maintaining that that the state’s curved averages were not based on a 100-point scale and that SCS’s higher averages were legitimate and a major reason why his system was resisting consolidation with that of Memphis.
A good deal of time was spent discussing post-referendum outcomes, assuming a Yes vote by Memphis citizens on March 8. McDonald said his city was seriously interested in pursuing a municipal school district, as allowed by the recently passed Norris-Todd bill, sponsored by Rep. Todd and state Senator Mark Norris, both of Collierville.
Such a system for Bartlett would incorporate some 10,000 students in a total of 11 schools. The sticking point, said the mayor, was the question of how his city could afford to purchase the existing school infrastructure, with a book value of some $62 million. At one point, Flinn quipped, “Godspeed. Go nuts,” pointing out that Memphis residents had long been used to the expense of a dual educational system, paying city taxes for MCS and county taxes that went to both systems.
One running motif in Flinn's case was that the very right of self-determination which the proponents of an independent Shelby County Schools system claimed for themselves applied to Memphis City Schools as well, and that included the MCS Board's decision to cease being a special school district.
The matter of city-government payments to MCS became the basis of one of the few exchanges that bordered on the unfriendly when, in a reference to the $57 million currently owed by the city to MCS, Todd paraphrased Memphis Mayor A C Wharton as saying, “If I can combine these systems, I won’t have to pay it.” Flinn responded somewhat hotly, “That’s incorrect!”
Not long afterward, though, Todd threw Flinn a bouquet, indicating the courtliness that was more a part of the general dialogue than was anger. Councilman Flinn was a friend of his, the legislator said, and was the only member of the City Council who had bothered to consult with him on school matters during the preparation of SB25, HB52, the Norris-Todd bill. The bill provides for a post-referendum period of some 2 ½ years during which a county-oriented “planning commission” would prepare the way for eventual MCS-SCS merger, followed by a lifting of the ban — effectively only for Shelby County — on new municipal or special school districts.
“The city mayor didn’t. The [Memphis] School Board didn’t,” Todd said. “And you see how effective I was,” Flinn said ruefully.
At another point when Flinn was discussing alternative versions of a transition into merger — the City Council’s, the County Commission’s, and that of the Norris-Todd bill, Rep. Todd made a point of saying, “The Norris-Todd bill is law!” — Governor Haslam having signed the bill not long after its passage.
For all that, the panelists agreed that a good deal of litigation would be involved before the dust settled.
The discussion ranged over charter schools (with Pickler, a charter school foe, acknowledging that Governor Haslam had made lifting the cap on such schools a point of his educational reform plan); over the so-called “Chancery” plan, whereby a consolidated all-county district would be split into five more or less autonomous sub-districts; and over such remote possibilities as the state taking over the Memphis schools.
“This is our Apollo 13. Failure is not an option. We have to figure this out,” Flinn said.