The Arlington High School story is one of the nastiest disputes we've seen in a while, even by the standards of Memphis and Shelby County politics.
Monday's ending, if it really is an ending, left proponents of the new school in northeast Shelby County bitter at Shelby County commissioner John Willingham and Mayor A C Wharton. The commission deferred a vote on funding for the school at the end of a nearly four-hour meeting during which proponents patiently cooled their heels.
Proponents figured Willingham was one of the seven yes votes needed to pass the funding resolution. But Willingham wasn't around at the end of the meeting, having departed for a doctor's appointment. Even before that conspicuous absence, Willingham was criticized by some of his colleagues for wanting to wheel and deal for support of his casino idea -- which passed by one vote Monday -- while playing hard-to-get on the school-bonds issue. Wharton's position is harder to read, but his ambiguous now-you-see-it, now-you-don't posture on rural school bonds also jeopardized -- and possibly doomed outright -- the proposed new high school.
The mayor may see rural school bonds as a dangerous precedent for severing county school funding from city school funding without assurances that the needs of both systems will be met. Arlington has a $1 property tax rate, lowest of Shelby County municipalities except nearby Lakeland, which has no property taxes. Spending $30-$40 million on a new school in Arlington might amount to an incentive, in this era of urban sprawl, for developing yet another fledgling outlying "city."
But Shelby County School Board chairman David Pickler and Superintendent Bobby Webb deserve better than rejection by inaction. Pickler in particular has been a diligent participant in almost every serious meeting to find a solution to the schools funding problem for the last two or three years. It's understandable that he feels he got the shaft. Even if the commission reconsiders the issue at its next meeting and finds the magic seven votes, construction deadlines may have passed the Arlington proposal by. That would leave Webb with a crowded school system and a mad scramble merely to find places to put students.
Wharton has contributed to the stalemate by characteristically failing to make clear where he stands and for what. Yes, he's a great conciliator, but commissioners and county residents look to the mayor for leadership and a firm position. Say what you will about Wharton's counterpart, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, everybody knows where he stands. Herenton thinks there should be one big school system and has frequently, publicly, and consistently championed that viewpoint.
Herenton's proposal requires more support from the school boards and city and county residents than seems to be there at the moment. If his idea hasn't run out of gas, it has surely lost momentum. The urgency of "do something" has been replaced by the apathy of "just say no." That would be no to full consolidation, no to school consolidation, no to rural school bonds, no to impact fees on developers, no to Arlington High School.
Dodging key votes and tough issues is no way to run local government. A commission that spent two hours quibbling over a $50,000 consultant on the FedEx Forum could have spent at least that much time disposing, one way or another, of the rural school bonds for Arlington High School.
Which leads me to put on my Dr. Phil face and say what has to be said: It's time for Memphis and Shelby County to start seeing other people. We've tried for years to patch things up, to come to some sort of mutual understanding, but we need to admit that we have irreconcilable differences. We don't even know each other any more ...