Mayor Willie Herenton says he will attend a schools meeting with suburban mayors and County Mayor Jim Rout some time in the future but he doesnt expect much from it.
Im going to go in a spirit of good will but I dont expect anything to come out of it, Herenton said in an interview with the Flyer Thursday. The meeting was originally scheduled for Monday but has been re-set for an undetermined date. Theyre very entrenched in their opposition to consolidation, but I firmly believe a consolidated form of government in the long run is going to be the most efficient and effective form of government. But its like crying in the wilderness alone.
Herenton said he thought about skipping the meeting, which will be held in Routs office, and he pointedly asked Rout what would be accomplished. He said Rout assured him that he would offer some alternatives.
Herenton, formerly city schools superintendent, seemed weary of the debate which flared up again in February when a bill was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly that would limit all counties to a single, unified school system. He laughed and admitted his suggestion in a television interview last week that school funding could bankrupt local government was pretty strong. But he predicted financing of government will be the hammer that will eventually force government and business leaders to push for consolidation.
There is no political will in this community to consolidate, he said.
The situation could change, however, in the coming months if Rout clarifies his political plans. The county mayoral race is in 2002. There has been speculation that Rout might run for governor, but my bet is he will run for reelection, Herenton said.
The costs of consolidation are not clear yet to Herenton, but he is confident that there would be long-term savings in personnel, school construction costs, pensions, and debt service.
So what if you initially have a gap you have to make up? Its just like a business plan. Some businesses dont make money in their first few years, then they turn around and make money.
He scoffed at fears that county students would be bused to inner-city schools and insisted school assignments would not change. And he said that fears of school construction cost overruns could be met by putting those decisions in the hands of a schools building authority. The city and county school boards would give way to a new elected county-wide board.
On the whole, Herenton was not in one of his famous fighting moods.
None of what Im talking about is easy, he admitted.
He brushed off critics who say he injected race and class into the issue.
Maybe its part of my education background, but in Memphis if you start talking from an academic perspective and mention race and class people go crazy. Well, race is a factor, and class is a factor. And nobody wants to admit that. Its not just true of white suburbanites, its true of black suburbanites. The white and black middle class typically have the same views about people who are poor.
He went out of his way to praise Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford, businessman Russell Gwatney, and the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce for a school-funding reform effort last year which Wellford admits went nowhere.
We got stymied because the majority of commissioners and Mayor Rout were not ready to get out in front of a sales tax referendum and the suburban mayors were very resistant to both single-source funding and a building authority, said Wellford.
Asked about a timetable for consolidation, Herenton said he expects it to happen well within this decade. He does not have to run for reelection until 2003. He wouldnt say what his own political plans are, but his patience on the consolidation issue he has plugged for two decades now suggests he is in it for the long haul.